StripesEuropean edition, Monday, June 8, 2009

SAINTE-MÈRE-ÉGLISE, France — On a field not far from where Ralph Manley and thousands of other American paratroopers jumped into history 65 years ago, soldiers of a different era symbolically took their turn in Normandy.

Nearly 400 U.S. soldiers parachuted Sunday into field a couple of miles outside of Sainte-Mère-Église, France, capping off several days of activities commemorating the 1944 Allied invasion of northern France, commonly known as D-Day.

They were joined by more than 160 French, British and German soldiers.

Since 2004, Germany, whose military was vanquished in World War II, has played an increasing role in marking the end of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.

On the Western Front, the dismantling of the German war machine began in Sainte-Mère-Église, the first French town liberated.

“I’m really honored to have jumped onto this drop zone,” said Spc. Wesley Bird, a paratrooper with the 173rd Airborne Combat Brigade Team in Vicenza, Italy.

The parachute drop commenced despite strong winds and intermittent showers.

“It went really well,” Bird said as he turned to reveal a soiled left shoulder. “The end was a little shitty,” he laughed. It is, after all, a farmer’s field where bovines roam.

A few jumpers had a bit rougher time of it.

Five American soldiers were injured and medically evacuated, and were treated at French hospitals. A German soldier apparently was stuck in a high tree. More details were still pending Sunday evening.

One Navy SEAL landed in the crowd, though no one on the ground was injured. One person jokingly observed that, as a SEAL, he was probably aiming for a small river. He made it. The large crowd appreciated the effort.

Conditions, however, were far, far dicier for Manley, who was with the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.

Imagine this: You are 20 years old, it’s shortly after midnight and you are jumping out of plane in bad weather behind enemy lines.

And you weigh 417 pounds, with equipment.

Then the plane catches fire, maybe flak, because there was a lot of it the night of June 6, 1944, and you are one of five paratroopers to make it out of the plane alive. Thirteen weren’t lucky; nor was the air crew.

“It was difficult until daylight,” Manley said Sunday. “We were widely scattered. It kind of worked to our advantage because the Germans thought there were a million of us. We were everywhere, but not in large numbers.”

Manley and other veterans who attended the various ceremonies are treated like royalty whenever they come to Normandy, though some waited until this year to return for the first time. At the drop zone Sunday, thousands of people from the region stood to watch the parachute drop.

Spc. Enock Nyaenya and Sgt. 1st Class Richard Schultz held out an American flag as they neared the ground. Upon landing, a woman handed both of them baguettes. “Mercì,” Schultz said.

Taking it all in was Nancy Gamber of Hershey, Pa. Her 91-year-old father, Ralph, fought in the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne, Belgium. Of more than 270 in his unit, only 18 survived the German counteroffensive in December 1944.

The reception that veterans, soldiers and Americans receive in this part of France astounded her. Most people in the States don’t come close to responding this way to veterans and servicemembers, she said with chagrin.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” Gamber said of the French people in Normandy. “It blows my mind.”

Sgt. 1st Class Robert Sciandra of the 75th Ranger Regiment would second that observation. He was part of the jump, struggled with the winds but arrived safely.

A brief conversation soon turned to the wristband he wears bearing the name of Sgt. 1st Class Dave L. McDowell.

“He was a good friend of mine,” Sciandra said.

McDowell was shot and killed in Afghanistan on April 28, 2008. Sciandra has also lost two other friends, one in Iraq and another during training in Germany.

He was asked if he thought of McDowell on a festive day such as this.

“Absolutely,” Sciandra said. “I think of all the guys we’ve lost over the years.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Steve Mraz contributed to this report.

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