America, France Pay Tribute to WWII Airborne Heroes
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
SAINTE-MERE-EGLISE, France, Jun. 5, 2004 As the United States and France paid tribute to those killed during the airborne operations during the Normandy invasion, everyone was brought close to tears and every person's chest swelled with pride here today.
Airborne veterans join French and American officials at a
wreath laying service at the "Iron Mike" statue in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, France,
June 5, exactly 60 years from their jump in World War II to liberate France
from the Germans. Photo by Jim Garamone
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers saluted the vets in the audience most now over 80 and said the new generation of service members is living up to their legacy. Myers said it was a "great and deep honor and privilege to be in the company of those who made history here 60 years ago today."
He told the veterans that the United States is "grateful for your service then, and your presence today."
Part of the salute came when almost 700 of today's soldiers and airmen jumped into the same drop zone that many of the veterans jumped into the night of June 5, 1944. Then, the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division jumped from C-47s. Today's soldiers and airmen jumped from Air Force C-130s, HC-130s and C-17s. The aircraft made three passes and every time the U.S. paratroopers began jumping, the vets applauded.
Army Sgt. Charles Cooper, an infantryman with the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Airborne Regiment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vincenza, Italy, was among the jumpers. "The best thing about this whole week has been the veterans," he said following the jump. "We've had some time to meet with them and hear their stories. There are men here who made four combat jumps during the war. I can't even imagine that. Anything we can do is a tribute to them."
The airborne veterans were stunned at the reception they received from the French and from the men and women of today's armed forces. Buses drove the veterans to the drop zone. The weather cooperated with a bright, warm day.
As the veterans walked to the grandstand erected for the occasion, the crowd applauded. The veterans were startled, looking around to see who famous had just walked in. While they clearly enjoyed the attention, many seemed embarrassed by it.
It was many veterans' first time back in France since 1944. Many looked out at the peaceful fields and compared it to the first time they saw it. "The Germans flooded this whole drop zone," said Tom Pelluca, a 508th Infantry Regiment vet. "They tell me about 40 guys drowned in the fields. When I landed I was able to find three other guys. It took us four hours to get out of the water."
Pelluca and the rest of the airborne troopers liberated Sainte-Mere-Eglise and held it against numerous counterattacks. He said he went on to fight in Holland and in the Battle of the Bulge before being wounded.
At the beginning of the tribute, the 101st Airborne Division Band played the French and American national anthems. The veterans came to attention and saluted, and belted out "The Star Spangled Banner" with such obvious pride and respect that many others in the crowd couldn't sing because they were choked up.
"These veterans are thanking us for all that we're doing for them," said a young private first class medic. "I tell them, 'Don't thank me. I'm the one who should be thanking you.'"
Following the tribute at the drop zone, the veterans and today's paratroopers went up the hill to the statue of "Iron Mike" the French memorial to those airborne troopers killed in the liberation of France. The mayor of Sainte-Mere- Eglise spoke of the "honor and courage" of the airborne troopers of 1944. He said his people will never forget the cost of their liberation.
Veterans joined Myers and local officials in placing wreaths at the memorial. Veterans and today's paratroopers saluted as a bugler played "Taps."
"People call us heroes," said Robert Murphy, an 82nd Airborne vet. "I wasn't a hero. The guys that didn't come back, now they were the heroes."