During World War II, just after midnight on June 6, 1944—a date now known as D-Day—primarily British and American airborne forces began parachuting and using gliders to insert themselves behind German lines during Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of the Normandy region of France. Thousands of paratroopers landed behind enemy lines to secure bridges and roads as the Allies launched amphibious assaults on the Normandy beaches at dawn. The operation was the first step in wresting Western Europe away from Nazi control. The Allies suffered more than 225,000 casualties during the campaign.
Seventy-five years later, the French government arranged a series of tributes to the heroes of Normandy that attracted more than one million people from across the globe for ceremonies, speeches and commemorative airborne operations. These airborne operations, many complete with vintage aircraft, took place around the countryside at the same locations where the paratroopers jumped 75 years before. Jump teams from the U.S. and around the world participated in the event, including the Liberty Jump Team (joined by members of an active-duty Army HALO team from the 10th Special Forces Group, three members of the Special Forces Association Parachute Team and three members of the veteran-focused parachute demo team the Chuters) and the Round Canopy Parachute Team.
More than 100 members of the Liberty Jump Team static-line parachuted into four different drop zones across the Normandy region from World War II-vintage C-47 aircraft (including the well-known Drag ‘em Oot and Placid Lassie jump ships), many with bullet holes still in the frame. Over the course of the event, Liberty’s static-line jumpers made more than 200 jumps, and the team’s freefall skydivers made more than 30 jumps into St. Germain de Varreville, Angoville au Plain, Graignes and St. Mere Eglise, all without incident or injury.
An estimated 20,000 spectators came out to watch more than 1,000 commemorative jumps (both freefall and static-line) at the most famous site of the Normandy airborne operations, the Iron Mike drop zone outside the town of St. Mere Eglise (where famously during the invasion, a paratrooper got hung up on a church steeple and pretended to be dead for hours to avoid being shot). The jumps concluded with a ceremony at the nearby Iron Mike statue and the unveiling of a tribute to General James Gavin, who led the 82nd Airborne Division on the ground in Normandy and later commanded the division.
As part of Liberty Jump Team’s efforts to honor veterans, Veterans Director Peter Plank arranged a fundraiser to bring World War II veterans back to their battlefields. This year the team brought George Merz from the 818th Military Police Battalion; Bill Van Osdol from the U.S. Navy Supply and Shore Patrol; Bob Noody from the 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division; and Dan McBride from the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.
Jumpers from the Round Canopy Parachute Team brought a whole stick (a military term denoting a group of about 10-14 people) of jumpers from Florida to participate in the events. RCPT member and Skydive Palatka DZO Art Shaffer also had a special mission: to take 97-year-old veteran Tom Rice, who had jumped into Normandy 75 years earlier with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles,” on a tandem skydive during the events. Rice was 22 years old when he made his first jump into Normandy in the dark of night behind enemy lines. Unlike 37 percent of his fellow paratroopers, he survived the invasion, going on to jump into occupied Holland.
This jump was far different. First, it was daytime. Second, no one was shooting at him. “I jump for the good guys that were lost, never returned, that did survive but could never talk about it,” Rice stated to an NBC News reporter on the scene.
The tandem pair jumped on a second pass, following a first pass of static-line jumpers, from the C-47 Drag ‘em Oot, into a field outside of Carentan, near Rice’s original landing site. Art Shaffer’s son, Shane Shaffer, came along on the jump to take video. The tandem pair wore a rig designed by United Parachute Technologies in the colors of the original paratroopers’ gear and deployed a flag that Rice wore in an old chest-mounted reserve bag. After landing, Rice said breathlessly, “It went perfect, perfect jump. I feel great. I’d go up and do it all again.”
Though there is no adequate way to repay the debt the world owes to those who served in Normandy and elsewhere during World War II, the D-Day commemorations, ceremonies and jumps paid great honor to those heroes. In the words of Keith Walter of the Chuters, “You truly have to jump the drop zones and walk the terrain to get an idea of the challenges and sacrifices they made so we can enjoy our freedom! Greatest Generation, we salute you!”
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