It was sometime past midnight. Pitch dark. The only sound was the droning of the C-47 cargo planes……and the pounding of the collective hearts. The “cargo” on this cold, damp night was paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st U. S. Airborne Divisions. If you add the parachute weight in, each jumper was leaving that plane with over 100 pounds of gear strapped to him. The most important of which, not counting the chute, was the M-1 Garand Rifle.
I’m guessing here, but from all accounts I have read, the average age of these men was nineteen and a half. Ken Russell thought of his high school classmates on the flight across the English Channel. They were graduating that very June 6, 1944, night back in Tennessee!
The plan was to have the planes level off at 600 feet and slow to 90 miles per hour. The low altitude would expose the men to less German fire on their decent. The speed would lessen the shock as they stepped out into the night air. The flak from the enemies’ 88 mm guns began to tear into the slow moving, unarmed planes. The pilots took evasive action, sped back up and altered their altitudes. Many of the C-47s were taking direct hits. So much for the plan…..
Planes were thrown off course. Drop zones in the confusion became almost impossible to discern. Still, there was a mission to be accomplished. It was time to take the offensive in the European campaign. I can’t imagine the feeling when the door pealed open, the green light flashed. Most, if not all, had never heard of the Cherbourg Peninsula or Normandy until just a few weeks earlier….but duty called and they stepped unflinchingly into the abyss.
They were the first liberators to set foot on French soil.
These young American paratroopers were the vanguard of a much bigger picture. As they fell into the hedgerows, cow pastures and flooded fields of Northern France a hundred thousand of their compatriots were steaming across the channel towards an early dawn destiny at Utah, Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc.
The Germans knew we were coming. They didn’t know when or where. But they had been preparing for an Allied invasion since overrunning France in 1940. The shear expanse of coastline along the channel made it impossible to defend every inch to the fullest. Hitler’s plan was to place reserves strategically away from the coast, a few miles inland, that would be rushed to the front immediately as reinforcements the moment the exact landing spots became obvious.
The 82nd Airborne paratroopers were “dropping in” behind Utah Beach in the dead of night, into a foreign land, into hostile enemy territory, into a battle zone to disrupt the German communications and to stop these support troops from getting to the coast. Not much to ask of some teenagers, is it?
The 101st Division was doing the same thing behind Omaha Beach. No one had to tell them their actions would greatly impact the landing forces poised and ready for the invasion. Lives depended on them. The mission depended on them. Those German reserves had to be stopped!
As in most battle situations, there was a snag or two. The men were scattered from here to yonder. Some had been caught up in trees. Some were drug through the flooded fields by uncooperative chutes. One paratrooper, John Steele, got hung on a church steeple. The thick hedgerows hampered maneuverability. There was no home base or assembly hall. The “chain of command” in the cold, damp, enemy ridden darkness was not overwhelmingly present. The men gathered in small groups of two or three, four or five……took their bearing as best they could and set out to liberate France.
By 4:30 that morning these young soldiers had captured the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. They had located and wiped out the main German communication center for the region. And they had isolated and were digging in to defend the few precious bridges over which the Germans planned to rush their tanks and reinforcements to push the invading Americans back into the English Channel.
The fighting was horrific on June 6 for control of these passageways. It was face to face and hand to hand in some instances. No quarter asked and none given!
I tried to picture it from 69 years after the fact as I rode across one of those historic bridges, still in tack, at La Fiere, France. It was small and narrow with just enough room for a tank or a heavy artillery truck to pass over. This bridge guarded the western entrance into Sainte-Mere-Eglise, a crossroads from which the Germans could have spring boarded to Utah Beach.
I stood on a slope above the bridge and “pictured” as best I could the three days of intense fighting that occurred across the fields surrounding this very same bridge. I listened for the gunfire, the calls for help, the bombs bursting in air. I raised my nostrils into the wind to catch a lingering whiff of the ever present smell of fear and death that once permeated this battlefield. I lowered my head and gave thanks from a grateful nation.
I stared up reverently at the Iron Mike statue that guards the bridge to this day. I read every single plaque that commemorated the American action here. Down near the bottom of one a line caught my eye……and my heart; and I think summed up the greatness of the American soldier,
“No armed enemy ever crossed this bridge.”