This week (June 5) in 1944, with the D-Day invasion of the Nazi-occupied Normandy coast set to begin, the man in charge of that invasion, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, paid a special visit to members of the U.S. 82nd and the 101st Airborne. Eisenhower did so both as a show of respect and as a morale booster, although his sense of confidence and good humor that day belied the fact that he had been warned that these men, who would be among the first Allied soldiers since June of 1940 to fight on French soil, might suffer 80 percent casualties. They were the advance guard, assigned to size up the German defenses and provide intelligence for the cross-channel armada that would follow them to Normandy’s beaches.
How dangerous was their mission? Perhaps a review of the equipment they each carried as they boarded the C-47s that would drop them behind enemy lines will provide a hint. The following, as recorded by one paratrooper, is what each soldier carried with him:
Uniform, helmet, boots, gloves, main parachute, reserve parachute, “Mae West” inflatable life jacket, rifle, .45 caliber automatic pistol, trench knife, jump knife, hunting knife, machete, one cartridge belt, two bandoliers, .45 caliber ammo (66 rounds), machine gun ammo (676 rounds), one Hawkins (anti-tank) Mine, four blocks of TNT, one entrenching tool with two blasting caps, six fragmentation grenades, one Gammon Grenade, two smoke grenades, first-aid kit, two morphine needles, one gas mask, a canteen of water, a three-day supply of K-rations, a two-day supply of D-rations, one blanket, one raincoat, a change of socks and underwear, and a carton of cigarettes.
Unbeknownst to these soldiers at the time, the cigarettes were hazardous to their health.
Speaking of health hazards, most of the pilots flying the C-47s that would be dropping the men behind enemy lines — in the dead of night — had not flown in combat before, nor had they been trained for nighttime flights. As for the C-47, it had not been designed to carry heavy cargo or passengers, let alone passengers so weighed down with equipment that if they sat down or fell over they would need assistance to stand back up. Also, the C-47 was neither armed nor armor-protected. And, finally, their flight formation was designed to be so tight the chances of mid-air collisions were high, especially since there was to be no radio communication.
And this was before the actual invasion began, which — as always happened in war — was deadly confusion and chaos.
That these men never flinched, that they did their duty and helped make D-Day a success, is one reason why last month’s Memorial Day is, and always will be, a national day of honor.