In a 75 year ago redux of the Band of Brothers HBO miniseries’ “No jump tonight”, weather prevented us from jumping on June 4th. Rain and high winds on the drop zone prevented us from doing a training jump at Duxford Airport. And, so, we were left waiting in anticipation for the weather forecast for the following day. And, while we waited, we trained. We turned the day’s disappointment into a dress rehearsal for D-Day, putting on our parachutes, adjusting our gear, practicing our safety procedures, half of the jumpers went up on a flight to put on a show for the public. I fortunately had a chance to board D-Day Doll, our West Coast bird from Riverside. And then we engaged in fine tuning our adjusting of bulky gear and figuring out how to load up all of our three-day stay equipment on our persons to take back with us back into France. Everything we took into England with us we were instructed that we would need to bring back out of the airplane including extra undergarments, shirts, souvenirs, etc. which of course effectively means all of our luggage in our pockets and attachable bags. The following day’s forecast placed us at best as a tentative of being able to make the Cross Channel jump. We would only have a short window of opportunity due to inclement weather, logistical, diplomatic, and permit-related issues. Otherwise, the entire jump operation would be cancelled and for many of us our entire Europe operation ruined.
On the early hours of June 5th, most of our time was spent sitting around in most of our gear anticipating an alert at any moment to suit up with our main and reserve parachutes. Finally, we were given the green light after some hectic and emotionally disruptive events and after some aircraft became unavailable. After drawing some straws, some of us were left behind in England. I was mistakenly not placed on any of the aircraft manifests and at the last minute was scrambling around to figure out which aircraft I could board. Between the long flight walk and the tightness of my parachute, I was somewhat demoralized whilst also determined not to be left behind in England, all this playing out in front of tens of hundreds and perhaps thousands of spectators watching us from behind airport security fences. I was instructed to follow the director of the operation into the lead aircraft. He chose a D-Day veteran Aces High which I had never jumped. As the last parachutist on the aircraft I had the seat right in front of the exit door with an amazing view of our entire flight. The flight itself lasted two and a half hours. There were moments where various aircraft would fly next to us including WWII fighter aircraft. In one particular instance, I could see the face of our regular C-47 pilot, Dave Brothers, flying D-Day Doll, another D-Day veteran.
The gradual transition from the English countryside below, to then the English Channel, and then finally the French coastline as we approached our drop zone, gave us ample time to think about those who jumped 75 years ago. We knew that we could only contemplate the conditions in which they made this flight. Most of us shuddered to imagine. But the waiting. That’s what struck many of us. How these soldiers endured the waiting is incredible—waiting followed by a sudden angry flak filled sky. Personally, I had an opportunity to see the vast amounts of crowds who saw us lift off from the airfield as we did an extra pass around the airfield to allow the rest of the airplanes to create a formation behind us. Across the countryside, I kept thinking to myself how incredible this all was and how I had been fearful of heights only some years back and here I was now looking almost straight down at farms, towns, trees, etc. The only thing separating me from the ground was a jumpmaster’s command to jump. I could see cows in the fields and people looking up at us and felt incredibly grateful to participate in such a historic event, perhaps even guilty that I finally had chance to travel to the utter extreme of learning from the textbooks that I use to teach high school history. There were moments when we would cross small channels of water and then finally we left the shores of England. Traveling across the ocean, with our modern flimsy life vests that were more likely to be rhe cause of our drowning in case of water impact than our salvation and being fully exposed on my left side to the elements of the outside of the aircraft, I could feel the moisture of the cloud cover along with a drop in temperature. Our planned route took us across the northeast over the Normandy beaches rather than from the southwest direction of the 1944 D-Day route around the Cotentin Peninsula.
When we saw Normandy below, all around faces changed. Some of us were deep in thought, others in prayer, each of us thinking about those who jumped into the darkness on June 5, to confront an enemy that was already unleashing their worst. Looking outside our windows, though, was what we imagined under the light of a full moon on D-Day might have been a source of inspiration. To our starboard and to our port side, C-47 aircraft all keeping pace, all evidence of what President Roosevelt’s prediction that “the people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.” We had 27 aircraft in our armada. During the early morning of June 6, 1944, two waves totaling 800 aircraft filled the skies. Our aircraft put 200 troopers out the door. Theirs put 13,000. Righteous might, indeed—and it turned the tide of the war.
We were fortunate to have our team member and photographer Gary Daniels in the chase plane during the 75th Anniversary of D-Day Cross Channel Jump. I could somewhat make out our other photographers in the chase plane given my position by the exit door. Personally, I became giddy with excitement at first site of the gorgeous Normandy cliffs and beaches down below. Unlike 75 year ago, we enjoyed a beautiful sunlit view a small opposed to one filled with darkness and fiery flak. At this point, anticipation built up among the first stick who were scheduled to jump first. The stick had maybe 14 jumpers. I was seated on the starboard side of the C-47 so I did not anticipate I would go out with the first wave. If necessary, I would be the very last jumper out the aircraft due to our method of combining and exiting two sticks together. Additionally, normally, the jump master will instruct jumper #1 to stand at the door. But due to some disorientation in identifying the drop zone, the jump master gave the instruction to “Follow me!” as soon as they saw the drop zone. Unfortunately, for the first stick, they ended up standing and waiting to jump for 30 minutes where we circled and perhaps neared midair collisions. Then, the first stick went out which is probably the footage you might have seen on CNN or any other major news network. I went out on the second stick after the airplane turned back around. I followed the jump master out the door as instructed. As I came out I could see farm fields everywhere. From a vantage point it 1,000 feet and back quickly descending at around 70 feet per second until my canopy deployed. Exit was smooth, parachute opening was soft, and the landing was perfect. When I came out the aircraft I remember thinking there was no one ahead of me, but then looked back to see a stream of jumpers floating down along me. It was an incredible feeling to see spectators cheering us all the way down. Getting back off the ground presented its own challenges with all of the weight we were carrying and being in the middle of a vast wheat field. It was one of the most indelible experiences of my life next to seeing my son’s birth. All of the waiting, expenses paid, emotional toll, mental anxiety, it was worth every ounce of labor that we all engaged in preparation for several months and even years leading up to this historic jump. It’s going to be hard to surpass the level of highs and lows that many of us experienced on this trip and is definitely something that will forever help me appreciate in the tiniest of degrees the sacrifice that our WWII veterans experienced 75 years ago.
Soon enough, after several photo ops, a storm closed in on us ending what was a memorable experience.”