Seventy-five years ago, on June 6, 1944, 60,000 American servicemen joined Allied forces as part of the D-Day invasion to liberate German-occupied France.
Among the Americans were about 12,000 men from the 82nd Airborne Division — 6,000 parachutists and 6,000 glidermen — some of whom landed the day before the invasion.
Three parachute infantry regiments and a reinforced glider infantry regiment boarded hundreds of transport planes and gliders to participate alongside the 101st Airborne Division.
The 82nd’s mission was to capture the town of Ste. Mere Eglise and secure the bridges over the rivers behind Utah Beach on the eastern shore of the Cotentin Peninsula.
Soldiers from the 82nd jumped into St. Mere Eglise, which was the first town liberated after the invasion June 6.
In the early hours of June 6, 82nd Airborne Division soldiers who dropped behind German lines were the first arrivals in the Normandy invasion.
By the end of the day, about 176,000 soldiers from the United States, Britain, Canada and France stormed ashore.
More than 3 million soldiers from the two sides fought for 76 days, leaving 367,000 dead and wounded.
Here are a few stories that paratroopers have shared with The Fayetteville Observer on D-Day anniversaries and in interviews throughout the years.
Maj. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway led the 82nd Airborne Division into France on D-Day. Ridgway, then 49, parachuted into Normandy, landing alone in a dark pasture, only to see an approaching shadow.
The general said he drew his .45-caliber pistol and whispered the password, “Thunder,” but there was no answer. Finally, the shadow moved, and Ridgway realized it was a cow.
“I could have kissed her,” he said, according to a July 1993 story in the Observer about Ridgway’s death.
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth “Rock” Merritt of Fayetteville landed alone in a briar patch with 13 German bullet holes in his parachute canopy on D-Day. Moments later, a burning C-47 flew 50 feet above his head and crashed 200 yards away.
“The first 24 hours was pure hell,” he said in a June 1994 interview with The Fayetteville Observer. “It seemed like you could walk up the bullets coming down on you.”
Merritt was a corporal with the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
He said he prayed to live until daylight so he could see who was shooting at him.
Eventually, Merritt found a chaplain and 40 American soldiers, all with the 82nd Airborne Division.
When daylight came, the Americans found they had stumbled upon a German battalion.
For three days and nights, the men stood their ground under constant fire until ground forces that landed on the beaches of Normandy arrived.
The men of the 82nd would fight for 33 days.
”All I remember is taking bridges, crossroads and hills,” Merritt said.
Bud Warnecke, who retired as a lieutenant colonel after working on the general staff of the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, parachuted into Normandy on D-Day as a sergeant with the 82nd.
But after he jumped out of the C-47 aircraft, he found himself leading a platoon as a lieutenant.
“Most of the officers and all senior noncommissioned officers were missing when we assembled,” Warnecke told The Fayetteville Observer in April 1993. “We were fighting for three days before we got the rest of the company assembled.”
Warnecke led the platoon, Company B of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, through Normandy.
“As soon as we bailed out, it seemed like everything, including the kitchen sink, was coming at us,” he said. “It was unbelievable the number of green, blue and orange tracers.”
After about 33 days preparing to move out of Normandy, he received a letter from his mother, who had read in the newspaper about the 82nd jumping on D-Day and fighting the battles.
“She writes, ‘I’m sure glad you’re with the 508th and not in the 82nd Division,'” Warnecke said. His mother didn’t realize the 508th was part of the division.
Elmo Jones was a staff sergeant in charge of a Pathfinder team for the 82nd’s 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
During the flight from England to France in 1944, Jones bowed his head and prayed that if he died “help me die like a man,” he told the Observer in an April 1994 interview.
The 82nd dropped behind enemy lines about 1:30 a.m. on June 6. Before the division could jump, Jones and other soldiers known as Pathfinders had to set up drop zones.
Three teams of Pathfinders from the 505th set up lights and a radar tracking system for the planes. Jones carried an “Automatic Direction Finder,” which he used to send the soldiers’ location back to the planes.
Other paratroopers carried the heavy radar transmitter, called Eureka, which sent out a signal that was picked up by a receiver, called Rebecca, on the transport planes bringing the rest of the paratroopers.
George McCoy was 19 when he joined the 82nd’s 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Ireland as it prepared for the invasion. He was assigned to the 505th’s Company E.
Just after midnight June 6, McCoy was the 14th or 15th man in his 18-man stick, or group, of jumpers.
”This was the day we were waiting for,” McCoy said in a June 2004 interview with the Observer. “I was in the 505th with these combat veterans. I had to act like they do.”
It was McCoy’s first combat jump.
Bullets tore through his pants and his parachute as he jumped from the C-47 over Normandy.
McCoy landed on a hedgerow, walls of thick hedges growing on foundations of stone and packed dirt.
”I thought I broke my back,” he said. “I laid there for the longest time. I could barely move.”
But after awhile, he gathered his equipment and started walking toward Ste. Mere Eglise.
Tom Blakey was 23 and a staff sergeant assigned to Company C of the 505th’s 1st Battalion when he made his first combat jump about 1 a.m. in June 1944.
Blakey landed in a plowed field on the outskirts of Ste. Mere Eglise. He had no idea where he was and wandered for most of the night, avoiding German patrols. All of the paratroopers were carrying small brass clickers or “crickets,” which they used to signal each other. One paratrooper would signal with a single click and the other would respond with two clicks.
Blakey finally saw a fellow paratrooper at first light more than 25 miles from his drop zone and also lost. He was from the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment. They found three more soldiers through the clickers.
The five paratroopers figured out where they were when they ran across a sign that said Ste. Mere Eglise 7 kilometers, but had to stop and hide to avoid German patrols.
As they got close to Ste. Mere Eglise, Blakey and the others came upon a large fight between 82nd paratroopers and German soldiers over the Le Fiere Bridge, the main bridge across the Merderet River on the road from Ste. Mere Eglise. Blakey said they were quickly folded into the unit and joined in the fight. The paratroopers fought for four days. It wasn’t until the 4th Division arrived from Utah Beach that the battle was won.
Days before D-Day, Jerry Weed was serving a six-month sentence for going to London without a pass. Before the invasion, 82nd Airborne Division commanders went to the jail and told the men they could either serve their sentences or jump.
Weed said he had no choice but to jump.
”It takes more guts to be a coward than a hero,” he said in a June 2004 interview with The Fayetteville Observer.
Marking his third combat jump, he landed just outside Ste. Mere Eglise.
At daylight, the company moved out to Neville au Plain, just north of Ste. Mere Eglise.
The paratroopers were sent to stop German reserves from getting to the invasion beaches.
Weed, who was in Company D of the 505th, said that after the paratroopers dug into their defensive line, they could see troops coming up the road.
”All of a sudden the Germans pulled off the road and start giving us all kinds of hell,” Weed said.
The German column outnumbered the paratroopers five to one. The paratroopers were able to hold their ground for eight hours.
Eventually, the paratroopers withdrew. But they were able to stop the Germans’ northern attack long enough for the two battalions from the 505th in Ste. Mere Eglise to stop the stronger German attack in the south.
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