Message of thanks from D-Day paratrooper's saviors reaches across time
By Dennis Yusko | Times Union, Albany, N.Y. | Published: June 2, 2014
ALBANY, N.Y. — An email from France has taken a D-Day veteran back to his days as part of the largest military invasion in modern history.
Paul Calhoun was one of the first Americans to participate in the liberation of Europe during World War II when he parachuted behind German lines five hours before the Allies invaded France on June 6, 1944. Dropped in a swampy area about 10 miles from his intended target, he was later wounded and captured.
He escaped from the truck taking him to a German prison camp and hid in the Norman countryside. Weak from fatigue and loss of blood, he managed to evade other German soldiers and eventually came to a farmhouse, where — unsure of how he would be received — he warily knocked on the door. The farmer who answered was shocked to find a wounded, bedraggled American paratrooper there, deep in German-occupied territory. Despite the danger, the farmer delivered Calhoun to an underground network of French families who nursed his wounds and fed and sheltered him for nearly a week.
Seventy years later, Calhoun, now 92, lives in the Wesley Community in Saratoga Springs.
The former U.S. Army corporal was transported back to that exhilarating and dangerous time recently when he received an unexpected note and two photographs from Frenchman Jacques Gilles, who, when he was 8 years old, helped his mother and father rescue Calhoun.
Gilles had tracked down Calhoun to reintroduce himself and to say thanks ahead of the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
"It is a duty and an honor for us Normans to show our deepest gratitude to the young brave Americans who, like you, came to fight and, for many, to give their lives for our freedom," Gilles wrote in his email.
Calhoun was "emotionally shaken," family members said, when he received the message.
"Shocking," Calhoun said on Thursday. "It was 70 years since I last saw any of them," he said.
Calhoun was shot in his left hand. The bullet went through a knuckle, leaving the finger dangling. One of the photos shows Calhoun, his hand bandaged, and a young Jacques Gilles and others who helped hide him.
"I remember when they were fixing my finger, which was sort of a mess," Calhoun said. "Two little boys were sitting there just wide-eyed, staring at the blood, the splint and bandages."
Paul William Calhoun shared his remarkable story of survival with help from his 63-year-old son, Paul Walter Calhoun, who is dean of special programs at Skidmore College. He recorded a series of interviews with his father in 1980. Those and a 45-minute interview Calhoun agreed to last week are the only times he's spoken about his experiences in one of history's greatest military operations, his son said.
His first-hand account of his D-Day exploits is a testament to enduring relationships formed among people who were united by destiny.
The signal in the plane to jump was a green light. At 1 a.m. on June 6, 1944, Calhoun and his fellow paratroopers leaped one second apart from a mere 500 feet into the black of night. Their orders were to attack German installations and to secure the coast for the coming seaborne invasion.
Calhoun was a member of the 101st Airborne Division's 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which would be immortalized in the 2001 HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers." Each paratrooper carried 95 pounds of equipment. Calhoun had two parachutes, a life jacket, a Thompson submachine gun, 240 rounds of ammunition, four grenades, a land mine, two knives, a 50-foot rope, two days of rations, a gas mask and a compass.
Calhoun's parachute opened as he watched Germans on the ground fire red and green tracer bullets at the plane he had just exited. He landed unscathed in a marsh.
When dawn broke, Calhoun and the 30 other Americans he was with realized they had been mistakenly dropped near Cherbourg, about 10 miles northwest of their target landing zone. They moved south, and at around noon on D-Day, the group became engaged in a firefight with a German unit. In the confusion of battle, Calhoun became separated from most of the other Americans.
It was a clear day, but he was wet and exhausted. He ditched his weapon, fearing it would attract the enemy, and waited in some tall reeds until dark with two other paratroopers from the 101st. They then entered a barn that led to a courtyard — where they ran into three Nazis soldiers. One fired and Calhoun fell to the ground, hit in his left hand.
He was captured and thrown into an underground concrete dugout. Calhoun never saw the other two Americans again.
In the morning, his captors put him in the back of a covered truck. When the truck stopped at a crossroads, Calhoun jumped out and rolled off the road. "I disappeared into the woods as fast as I could," he said. He hid under a haystack, but soon became desperate for food and water.
After scouting a farmhouse for hours, he finally approached and knocked on the door. He told the surprised man who opened it, "Je suis un Americain parachutist." He showed the Frenchman — later identified as Jules Lebredonchel of Le Theil — his finger and begged for help.
Lebredonchel, after consulting with others inside, took Calhoun in. Lebredonchel summoned friends, who took their surprise American guest to Jean-Baptiste Sauvey, who introduced him to Fernand Gilles, a schoolteacher who spoke English and was Jacques Gilles' father.
"They treated me very special," Calhoun said. "I felt very safe with them."
After about a week in hiding, Calhoun woke up one morning in the woods and heard some clatter. The Germans were retreating before the advancing Americans. The French who lived in the area celebrated with unrestrained joy, Calhoun recalled. They made him eat two large duck eggs to line his stomach so he could handle drinking Calvados, the powerful apple brandy made in Normandy.
"The most moving thing that happened was all the French gathered at their town hall, raised the French flag and sang 'The Marseillaise,' their national anthem," Calhoun said.
He hitched a ride with the U.S. infantry and a few days later rejoined the "Screaming Eagles" near Caen. Calhoun was the only lost member of his unit to make it back. He was sent to England for medical treatment and returned to the front lines at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, Hitler's last-gasp effort to reverse the Allied tide.
Gen. George Patton's Third Army eventually broke through the German defenses and within months the war was over. History credits the daring D-Day invasion with liberating western Europe from Hitler's Third Reich.
Calhoun was part of the hunt for Hitler at the Nazi dictator's Eagle's Nest fortress in Bavaria.
The war ended while he was stationed in Austria and he was shipped home to Philadelphia, where he was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star and married his wife, Ruth. The couple had three children — Paul, Candace and David Lee.
"I was lucky, very lucky," Calhoun said. "I cheated death. I'm very thankful for the French people who helped me."
Calhoun exchanged Christmas cards with Sauvey and the elder Gilles, who sent him copies of the two pictures taken in France with his rescuers on June 9, 1944. Communication with the family ended in the 1960s after the Frenchmen died. It resumed on April 26 of this year when Jacques Gilles found an old Venice, Fla., address for Calhoun and tried to contact him by sending an email to the Venice town hall.
Calhoun had moved to Saratoga Springs from Florida in 2010 after his wife died. Kit McKeon, a West Point graduate and Venice City Council member, tracked down Calhoun at the Wesley Community and forwarded Gilles' message.
"The French who lived there have obviously never forgotten and won't," Calhoun's son said.
His father sent Jacques Gilles a letter on Monday.
"I will never forget the courage of your people in leading me through the woods to the farm where we met your father," Calhoun wrote. "They risked their lives if the Germans saw us."