Tracing the same route over the English Channel and over the fields and dense hedgerows of coastal Normandy, hundreds of NATO paratroopers paid tribute to jumps by the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions on the “Day of Days,” June 6th, 1944.
Starting from an airfield near Cherbourg, France, 575 soldiers from the U.S., France, Germany, the Netherlands and Romania jumped out over the course of about half an hour in chalks of twelve from eight C-130s and C-160s on a nearly-cloudless day near the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, just where U.S. paratroopers landed 74 years ago.
“It was pure emotion – we were about 300 feet off of the water, we could look out and see fishing trawlers,” Brig. Gen. Robert Cooley, commander of the 353rd Civil Affairs Command, an airborne unit that supports operations in Europe and Africa. “Everyone has their own story, everyone was in their own thoughts, really trying to understand what it meant to them.”
Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, planner of the D-Day invasion, was present to see his plan replicated in the gentle pastureland of Normandy.
“It’s a really iconic spot for all sorts of reasons,” she said. “Because of the heroism of the people who landed here, but also for the beginning of an important alliance between the U.S., Great Britain and France and other countries who participated here today, so it had real geopolitical significance and human and historical importance.”
Thousands of spectators were gathered to watch the jump, which was also punctuated with a low flyover by a pair of A-10 Warthogs from the Michigan Air National Guard’s 127th Wing.
It was Spc. Jesslayn Fuentes’ first jump in Normandy. The paratrooper from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy, said it was a bit of a change from the unit’s normal jumps.
“Usually the way we jump is (mass tactical) into combat so this is my first “Hollywood” jump since airborne school,” she said. “I was in the fourth pass, sixth jumper, but once I knew it was coming up, it was a wrap, there was no hesitating.”
2018’s jump marked the first time Romanian soldiers participated. In World War II, Romania fought alongside Germany until it was overrun by Soviet forces in 1944. But the country is now a NATO member on the alliance’s eastern flank.
“I think the thing that’s most significant about it is we’re getting more players on the team,” said U.S. Army Europe Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Abernethy. “You look around here and see all the different uniforms of all our allied partners coming together, it’s tremendous.”
Abernethy said he was thinking of a mentor, Command Sgt. Maj. (ret.) Kenneth “Rock” Merritt, who fought with the 82nd Airborne in Normandy, as he prepared to leave the plane.
Following the massive airborne operation, paratroopers and guests attended a ceremony at Normandy’s famous “Iron Mike” statue, commemorating the battle for the La Fiere bridgehead from June 6-9, 1944.
“Anywhere, anytime, all the way – that’s the airborne creed,” said Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.
“On La Fière causeway, these paratroopers did not fail. Today, let us not fail them. Let us honor their valor, their sacrifices.”
Sunday’s jump, Iron Mike ceremony and parade through the streets of Sainte-Mere-Eglise marked the high point for the 74th anniversary commemorations. Next year’s event, marking the 75th anniversary, should be even larger.
© 2018 the Stars and Stripes
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