When I was a little boy, growing up in the 1950s, I was in awe of our World War II veterans. Everyone's dad had served during the war. If you asked them a direct question about what they'd done, they told you. Mostly, they didn't really talk about it. My generation — the baby boomers — received more history about the war through reruns of old black-and-white movies on television, than we ever did from our dads.
I joined Army ROTC as a college freshman in 1968. It sounds odd now, but I paid my own way through the Army's Airborne School the summer of my junior year. Since I wasn't technically on active duty, I had to pay for my own travel, room and board. They threw in the butt kicking the course entailed for free.
You might think that jumping out of an airplane five times at 1,250 feet took real guts, but truth be told I was too excited to be scared. At that age, we all thought we were indestructible anyhow. The only thing that really scared me, and it scared me to death, was when I thought about what my airborne predecessors had done the morning of June 6, 1944. I thought about them every time they opened the airplane's back door to jump. Every, single, time.
The U.S. Army dropped 13,100 paratroopers behind the German lines in Normandy, France, before dawn on what author Cornelius Ryan would call “the longest day.” These men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions would suffer a 21% casualty rate, but paved the way for the Allied invasion of Europe at first light. Historians are divided on whether the greatest military invasion in history would have succeeded without the airborne. I prefer not to even think of the consequences had they failed.
Most people figure that having a faulty parachute is a big concern, it's not, that almost never happens, you have a reserve parachute just in case. There are only three things that make jumping out of an airplane while in flight really dangerous-just three:
- Being shot at from the ground
- Not being able to see your drop zone
- Landing in water
Many of the paratroopers that day went three for three. Their courage was such, that in perfect hindsight you have to ask how they could have done what they did. The reality is that since there had never been anything like this, nobody knew what would happen.
The paratroopers brought instantaneous confusion to the Germans before the invasion on Normandy's beaches had even started, seizing key bridgeheads and silencing cannons that threatened the troops hitting the beaches. Their most important contribution was diverting Nazis from the beaches, where the primary invasion was taking place. Their fight started long before dawn, and ended only when darkness fell that night.
They are almost all gone now, after all, if you had been 20 in 1944 you'd be 95 today, and of course that assumes you'd even made it through June 6, and the rest of the war. They were all around us for decades; my high school English teacher, Earle Thompson, was wounded on Omaha Beach that day, my geometry teacher, John Posten, shot down four Japanese planes in the South Pacific, my economics teacher, Floyd DeNicola, won a Silver Star and Purple Heart. They didn't like to remember it. I never forgot.
When I was a little boy, growing up in the 1950s, I was in awe of our World War II veterans. I still am.
Roderick Taylor won the 2017 Holiday Memories Essay Contest with the essay “Going Home.” He is a resident of Minnetrista.