FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — They filtered through the last wisps of lingering fog, brightly colored early Christmas packages in the middle of the smoke and flames of hell.
First Lt. Everett "Red" Andrews was among the young men ordered to scramble over hard-frozen fields to gather the gifts, sent to keep them alive and fighting.
And this December, some 70 years after hundreds of colored parachutes kept the 101st Airborne Division alive in the cut-off city of Bastogne, Belgium, Andrews plans to return to the French countryside with a gift of his own.
Andrews has helped arrange for what may be the last of the surviving parachutes to be in working condition for an aerial salute.
Just don't expect Andrews, who just celebrated his 93rd birthday, to jump with it. He quit leaping out of airplanes when the government stopped paying him for it.
"I think I'm a bit past all that," Andrews said with a laugh in his Fayetteville home. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1963.
But as a young soldier fresh from Kankakee, Ill., with a bright shock of red hair that gave him his nickname, Andrews jumped into one of the most famous battles of World War II.
In mid-December of 1944, his artillery unit was ordered to take up position in a village just north of Bastogne. The trucks rolled out to pick up supplies and ammunition.
The trucks never returned.
Instead, the countryside was hammered by a fierce German attack known as the Battle of the Bulge. The artillery unit hunkered down in a farmhouse with a family.
"One of the few bright spots was that we had a portable generator," Andrews recalled. "The guys were able to hook the house up. It was the only place around with electricity. We listened to the BBC news at night."
Which is how Andrews and his unit learned that they were completely surrounded. With a thick layer of fog overhead and German forces all around, "things were looking sort of dark," he said.
Then, on the morning of Dec. 24, 1944, Andrews witnessed one of the largest one-day parachute drops of the war. Hundreds of C-47s, their bellies bulging with supplies, roared overhead at about 1,000 feet.
"I always thought of this as the bravest, most disciplined act I've ever seen," Andrews recalled. "The Germans knew they were coming and had set up a flak belt. All those planes had to fly through it, and a lot of them didn't make it. Others were streaming smoke and flames.
"But they stayed level, knowing what it meant to us on the ground. If they hadn't, I don't know what we would have done."
Through the smoke and flame and sound, more than 1,000 parachutes filled the sky. Each was a different color, depending on its cargo.
"Ammunition was red, infantry was blue, signal corp was orange, like that," Andrews said. "That way if you could only grab a couple, you knew what to run to."
A few parachutes fell into the hands of the Germans, and they made life difficult for anyone trying to get the rest. But by Christmas Eve, hundreds of the chutes were in Allied hands.
The siege was lifted the day after Christmas. Some soldiers, like Andrews, had come to realize that the parachutes that saved their lives also made excellent linings for sleeping rolls. Andrews managed to hang on to several of them.
"I gave a blue one to the family we shared a house with," he said. "A year later, I visited them. The mother had used the parachute to make blue silk dresses for her four little daughters."
Another chute became his wife, Margaret's, wedding dress after the war. After coming home, Andrews donated the yellow chute to the 101st Airborne museum. The final chute he kept as he continued his military career around the world.
In time, as with most souvenirs, it ended up in a box in the attic.
"I mean, really, what are you going to do with it?" he said.
Recently, Andrews heard about a group of World War II re-enactors who were planning to stage an anniversary drop over Bastogne as part of the 70th anniversary celebration.
That's when everything clicked.
"I pulled out the parachute," he said. "Of course, the riggings were all fouled up, and I couldn't remember how to fix it.
"But I gave it to the riggers over at Fort Bragg, and they fixed it right up for me."
Andrews says several of the chutes have survived in museums, but he doesn't know of any still out there that are fit to use.
"This may well be the last one," he mused. "The last of all those that fell that day."
If so, he said, it's fitting to let it be part of the ceremony.
"I plan to be there to see it, at least one more time," he said. "Maybe that's why I held on to it for so long, so we could both be back at Bastogne."
Information from: The Fayetteville Observer, http://www.fayobserver.com
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