D-Day jump recreated as vets bask in admiration
STE. MERE-EGLISE, France — The last time Joseph Stritto was in France, he was struggling to dodge dead cows — shot by the Germans — so he could land his Waco glider in a farm field and unload the 14 soldiers he was carrying.
On Saturday, Stritto, 86, was among a handful of World War II veterans who had survived the D-Day invasion at Ste. Mere-Eglise and returned for the 60-year anniversary.
“It’s hard to imagine,” Stritto said slowly, his speech hesitant because of a recent stroke. “I was headed for the beach, but we were strafed by a couple of Messerschmitts. I landed my 14 troops south of Ste. Mere-Eglise.”
Stritto, then of the 441st Troop Carrier Command, was among the first wave of U.S. soldiers in the invasion.
Late on June 5, 1944, 16,000 American soldiers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions jumped from troop carriers or were part of units that landed in gliders at Normandy that day. On Saturday, the veterans and their families and thousands of onlookers were treated to a re-enactment.
Sixteen Air Force planes, including C-130s, MC-130s and C-17s, flew over the open farm field so paratroops from the 82nd and 101st and the 173rd Airborne Brigade could parachute to the ground.
“It’s very impressive,” said Stritto, who had been a flight officer in the war.
In all, 610 soldiers jumped Saturday, their green chutes unfurling as they fell.
Among them was Sgt. 1st Class LaMonta Caldwell, 37, of Company B, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza, Italy.
“I was jumping in the memory of all the guys who actually jumped that day,” Caldwell said. The last time Caldwell had jumped was on March 26, 2003, when the unit parachuted into Bashur, Iraq.
“You can’t get no better than that,” Caldwell, 37, of Ruston, La., said of his last two jumps.
Also jumping was Col. Jim Yarbrough, operations officer for the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C.
“They’re 60 years apart but the spark in these young troops is absolutely no different than the spark you see in the veterans’ eyes,” Yarbrough said.
Just before cargo planes unloaded the soldiers Saturday, Henry Scott, a C-47 pilot who had dropped troops in the same area on the eve of D-Day, wanted to talk less about the current jump and more about the one he participated in.
“It was dark. It was so dark it was scary,” said Scott, then a major with the 88th Squadron of the 438th Troop Carrier Command.
“The paratroopers had asked me for the submachine gun on our aircraft,” said Scott, 84, of Washington, D.C. “They didn’t have any of those.”
Thousands of visitors flocked to Ste. Mere-Eglise for the parachute drop and other ceremonies, turning the normally quiet Norman town into a festive hub. To reach the jump zone meant a nearly two-mile walk from the town center, but that didn’t seem to deter anyone.
Spc. Caroline Smith, of the Hanau, Germany-based 502nd Engineers, came to the jump to escort Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper. Chief of Staff Gen. Richard B. Myers was the keynote speaker.
But once Jumper was in the grandstand, Smith, 22, used her video camera to record the airborne troops falling from the sky. She said the French people’s reaction to the U.S. soldiers, as well as being in the presence of World War II veterans, had been an enormous honor.
“I’ve never felt so good about being a soldier,” said Smith, of Seattle.
In the mood
At the 50th anniversary of D-Day, it was cold, windy and wet.
This year, beautiful weather put everyone in a festive mood. Since Thursday, there has been little rain and mostly blue skies that helped turn the D-Day commemoration into a joyful occasion.
The scene at Ste. Mere-Eglise, one of the focus points for events, was like that at a street party. On the Place 6 Juin, hundreds of current military members mingled with dozens of veterans and thousands of well-wishers from across Europe. They posed for photos with small children and re-enactors dressed as French Resistance fighters and laughed at jokes they probably did not understand.
All the while, shopkeepers and food vendors, who had set up stands to accommodate the milling crowds, patiently answered questions in English — and with a smile.
The mood at Normandy American Cemetery, set just above the sands of Utah Beach, was respectful but not somber Saturday as World War II vets, joined by family and thousands of European visitors strolled across the neatly manicured grounds.
The cemetery was one of several stops on D-Day bus tours. But it was an important one.
Buried here are 9,386 Americans, most of whom died during the Battle of Normandy, an 80-day period that began June 6, 1944. Saturday, each white cross and Star of David had miniature U.S. and French flags planted in front of it.
Work crews were busy setting up bleachers, chairs and a speaker’s stand for the official French-American ceremony — featuring President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac — planned for Sunday morning.
Jeeps built to last
Incredible as it may seem, the Norwegian military regularly used U.S. Army World War II vehicles until the mid-1980s, according to a Norwegian army veteran.
The vehicles’ longevity is a testament to the simplicity of 1940s technology.
“They are very reliable and easy to fix,” said Carl-Henrik Pande-Rolfsen, who served in the Norwegian military in 1973.
In the early 1950s, the Norwegian military received more than 12,000 vehicles from the U.S. government, from the iconic jeep to the 2½-ton transport truck, Pande-Rolfsen said. The vehicles were gradually phased out following a 1986 NATO exercise, dubbed “Blue Fox.”
Nowadays, collectors of vintage World War II vehicles often travel to Norway to buy them or their parts, which apparently are plentiful.
Pande-Rolfsen said he’s known some enthusiasts who have traveled to Norway from as far away as Arizona.
A WWII jeep purchased in Norway can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000, said Petter Zachaniassen, who came to Normandy with Pande-Rolfsen and other Norwegian re-enactors.
“We are really fond of these vehicles,” said Pande-Rolfsen.
Stripes big with vets
Over the past several days, D-Day veterans and World War II buffs assembled in Normandy have perked up whenever a member of Stars and Stripes approaches them for a comment or photo.
“We ate it up,” Howard L. Beach, a 9th Infantry Division and D-Day veteran, said of the newspaper. “We appreciated the Stars and Stripes. … The only thing better was a letter from home.”
At a café on Utah Beach, photo images of Stripes’ front pages adorn the walls, chronicling the progression of the war from the D-Day landings to the end of the war.
In Ste. Mere-Eglise, a Dutch couple offered rides on an authentic Stars and Stripes transport vehicle used during the war. They and the vehicle have been driving to Normandy every year to take part in D-Day commemorative events.
Veterans have told Carry and Joost Engelhard they were so focused on what they were doing in their area that they often had scant knowledge about what was happening throughout the theater.
Veterans, the couple said, often recount how they depended on the newspaper to provided them with an overview of how the war was unfolding.
— Kevin Dougherty and John Taylor contributed to the briefs on this page.