PHILADELPHIA — The first time John Perozzi went to Sainte-Mère-Église, he parachuted into a war zone, with the crack, crack, crack of gunfire all around him.
The Camden native dropped several hundred feet to a farm, helped liberate the French town, and was shot as the Allies invaded Normandy.
Seventy years later, a decidedly different reception awaited him. Perozzi was greeted like a hero when he returned shortly before the June 6 anniversary of D-Day.
A French woman, Cecile Gancel, who was about 11 when he parachuted onto her farm field, welcomed him with a warm embrace and pointed out where he landed.
A 10-year-old Dutch boy, who grew up with his grandfather's stories of D-Day, hugged Perozzi and wept as the two looked over thousands of crosses marking graves of U.S. service members at the Normandy American Cemetery.
And many other people — locals and foreign tourists — asked him to autograph photos, jackets, D-Day-related books, even toilet paper. Some wanted to pose with him for pictures.
"They were so gracious," said Perozzi, 94, a recipient of France's Legion of Honor who lives in Cherry Hill. "It's amazing how they love freedom.
"They love it so much because they lost it," he said. "It was taken away by the Nazis."
On his return trip to Normandy, Perozzi was accompanied by his son, John Perozzi Jr., 52, of Medford and other family members and friends.
Retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North also met him there to produce an online Frontlines video called Normandy — A Hero Returns.
They paused at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, once a scene of indescribable carnage and horror. There, Perozzi turned to the Dutch boy who was touring the site.
"You are lucky you can come here to see this . . . ," he told him. "The price of freedom is expensive. It takes lives."
Perozzi could have stayed home in 1944. As a well-paid Navy welder, he was exempt from being deployed "but couldn't stay out" of the fight. He chose to serve as a paratrooper in the Army's 82d Airborne Division.
"We were well-trained," Perozzi said. "I wasn't scared. I said, 'JP, just jump like you were trained.' "
By early June 6, the paratroopers piled into a C-47 transport for the flight over the English Channel to France. On the way, Perozzi said, he "prayed, 'Look over me and I won't forget you.' That's when all the goodness comes out of us."
Perozzi remembered jumping at 1:30 a.m., slowly dropping with his M-1 rifle and .45-caliber handgun, into the unknown. "We landed on the button, right outside of Sainte-Mère-Église," he said. "Nobody knew what was going on."
Perozzi cut off a piece of his parachute and wrapped it around his neck like a scarf to protect his skin from a stiff, raspy uniform, which had been impregnated with chemicals intended to protect him from a poison gas attack.
"The hedgerows were so big that you could have a guy on the side and not know if he was German or American," he said. "The smart thing to do was stay in foxholes and watch the hedges."
But duty called. Perozzi and other paratroopers helped rescue a besieged platoon less than a mile away and extricated injured soldiers from a glider that crashed nearby.
Sainte-Mère-Église eventually fell into American hands. The German communication hub there was knocked out.
But the fighting was so fierce and the adrenaline pumping so much that Perozzi did not realize he had been shot in the left shoulder.
"The gunner in our squad said, 'Perozzi, you're bleeding,' " he said. "I asked him if there were any holes in my uniform.
"I didn't see any, but there was plenty of blood," he said. "I was sent back to the beach — and it was a sight."
Bodies were stacked five, six, and seven high, he said. "What a waste of life. I thank God I didn't have to go on the beach, and I thank God I didn't have to go in a glider."
Doctors in England decided not to remove the bullet in Perozzi because it was too close to his heart. They patched him up and allowed him to later rejoin his unit, which parachuted into Holland during Operation Market Garden in September 1944, then fought in the Battle of the Bulge in December.
Seven decades later, Perozzi, his son John, and others returned to the former battlegrounds.
"We stood in the same areas, if not the same spots, where Dad fought," said John Perozzi Jr., who operates the Beacon Auto & Truck Collision Center in Pennsauken, a business started by his father after the war. "We saw the drop zone where he landed and the church where he was evacuated.
"By the grace of God, I stand here because he survived," he said. "Many others did not make it."
The younger Perozzi said he always respected his father but holds him with even higher esteem now after seeing what he went through on D-Day.
"Football players and basketball players are considered heroes, but my dad is a true American hero," he said. "People come up to him, some with tears in their eyes, to say, 'Thank you for my liberty.'
"People gathered outside his hotel looking for photographs and autographs," he said. "Talk about getting chills."
The elder Perozzi appreciated the attention but pointed again to the cost — at the Normandy American Cemetery. "Without the guys under those crosses, we wouldn't have freedom," he said.