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D-Day paratrooper laid to rest with a flyover tribute from the WWII warplane he had jumped from

Douglas C-47A aircraft (Alan Wilson/WikiCommons)

White clouds dotted the blue skies as a 1943-built World War II airplane soared above the gravesite where former Army paratrooper PFC Leslie Palmer Cruise Jr. was laid to rest in Ambler Saturday.

But the whipping winds caused plans for a veteran paratrooper to jump from the aircraft at the cemetery to be canceled.

Some 78 years ago, on June 6, 1944, Cruise, who grew up in a Philadelphia orphanage, had jumped from the very same plane, a twin-propeller Douglas C-47A aircraft, on D-Day into Normandy, France.

The flyover evoked a very emotional response, especially from the Rev. Rick Tyson, the retired pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church who conducted the graveside ceremony at Whitemarsh Memorial Park and Cemetery.

“I was very moved,” Tyson said. “After all that he had been through, growing up in an orphanage, and getting injured in the war. …

He said Cruise came home, went to college on the GI Bill, became an architect, and made a life with his wife, Shirley.

The cremains of both Cruise, better known as Les, and his wife were buried together Saturday. They died six days apart in January from COVID-19 related illnesses at their Horsham home, their daughter, Janet Klein, said. He was 97; she, 98.

The burial was scheduled to coordinate with plans for the National Warplane Museum in Geneseo, N.Y., which owns the plane Les Cruise jumped from in 1944, to have a flyover at the cemetery, followed by plane tours at Northeast Philadelphia Airport.

Cruise had been one of five children in his family. They went to live at the Methodist House orphanage in West Philadelphia when their mother could not raise her children alone, Cruise’s son, David, said.

After the war, Cruise finished high school and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania to study architecture.

David Cruise said his father worked for a number of architectural firms. One of his projects was to design the Eisenhower Auditorium at Pennsylvania State University, he said.

Janet Klein said that while she was growing up, her father, like many World War II veterans, didn’t talk much about the war.

She said he was saddened that one of his best friends and tent roommates, Pvt. Richard Vargas, was shot and killed as he lay on the ground next to him.

“He thought that because Vargas was at his side, that saved his life,” Janet Klein said.

She said her father pushed on to make something of his life as a way of honoring his friends who died in the war.

When young Pvt. Les Cruise jumped out of the plane that would fly over his grave so many years later, he had just turned 20. Historians say the Normandy invasion was a turning point and helped to end World War II.

“In the hours after his [Cruise’s] harrowing drop, he was part of the 21-man squadron that liberated the first town in France, Sainte-Mère-Église,” said Dawn Worboys, a spokesperson for the National Warplane Museum.

“An American flag now hangs in the mayor’s office, a reminder to the citizens of the pride and gratitude they hold for their American heroes.”

Cruise’s son said his father was excited when the Warplane Museum contacted him several years ago and told him they had checked the plane’s manifest and discovered it was the aircraft he had jumped from. Les Cruise traveled to New York a couple of times to see the plane and was allowed to fly in it, David Cruise said.

He said his father went to Normandy in 2004 for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, and went again in 2014 with a few family members for the 70th anniversary, when he was 90.

Ken Klein, who accompanied his father-in-law to Normandy, along with David Cruise and a grandson, said Cruise was able to visit Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial, at Saint-Avold, France, in 2014 to pay his respects to his friend Vargas.

Ken Klein said Cruise put his hand on the white wooden cross at Vargas’ grave.

“I think that was the first time he was able to really mourn his friend’s death,” Ken Klein said.

After the graveside services in Ambler Saturday, family members went to Atlantic Aviation at Northeast Philadelphia Airport to get a closer look at the plane. Some were able to take a short flight in it.

Inside the airport, John Lindsey, 74, who served with a helicopter crew during the Vietnam War in the 1960s, said he was honored to pilot the C-47 during Saturday’s flyover.

Lindsey first met Cruise a few years ago, when he traveled to New York. And he was with him in 2014 in France at Normandy.

“Les was a very special man,” Lindsey said. “He’s worthy of all this.”

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(c) 2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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