This blog was written by CSM (Ret) Rick Lamb, Global SOF Director of Military Relations, after he participated in commemorative jumps into Normandy in June 2019.
I just returned from the Normandy Coast of France. The weather was perfect, and the people were nothing short of delightful! Representatives from much of the free world were assembled in what amounted to a living tribute to the men and women who sacrificed their youth in the liberation of Occupied Europe seventy-five years earlier during World War II.
It was a humbling experience.
We jumped from a C47 Dakota named, “Drag’-Em-Oot”. The plane dropped Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division behind the Normandy beaches during Operation Overlord in June of 1944 and participated in Operation Market Garden over Holland, some ninety days later. The plane still bears the scars of war with over thirty bullet holes in her chassis. Standing in the door and flying over the French countryside was surreal.
We wore the iconic M1942 Jump Uniforms, the cut of which, with reinforced elbows and knees, is still the standard today. Wearing heavy leather Jump Boots, Steel Helmets and Cotton Web Gear, we drifted over the Normandy landscape in round canopies and captured a slight glimpse of what it was like for our forefathers – minus the daylight conditions, dry fields, and not being surrounded by the enemy (no one was shooting at us)!
It renewed my respect and admiration for that Greatest Generation, who will shortly pass into history and soon be forgotten. The one-hundred-year anniversary of World War I just passed last year with nary a whimper. One of the most significant events of the 20th century, directly responsible for many of the problem sets that continue to plague us today, cast into the dustbin of history without a second thought.
More Bone Density–In Humans and Hardware
In Normandy I saw America in her finest hour. Eighty-year-old War Birds made in Santa Monica, California filled the skies. Harley-Davidson Motorcycles made in Milwaukee, Wisconsin along with DeSoto’s, Fords, Willy’s, and General Motors Wheeled, Tracked, and Armored Vehicles made in Detroit, Michigan rumbled through the streets. All of them over seventy-five years old, and still going strong. The vehicles were cared for by people with a passion for simple and durable analog technologies that harkened back to a time when we were less affluent, more resourceful, less self-absorbed, less disposable…and believe it or not, had more bone density! It’s true, look it up!
I met Old Warriors from the 82nd Airborne Division, the 101st Airborne Division, 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions, and the 1st, 4th and 29th Infantry Divisions. They were all in their nineties, several were over one-hundred years old! Their stories and the lives they lived…were amazing!
I met Vince Speranza who filled his helmet full of beer from a bombed-out tavern in Bastogne and ferried it to his wounded comrades in a Church, that was converted into an aid station. After several trips for refills, he was finally sent back to his foxhole by the Doctors and his First Sergeant. He’s still a humble man with a mischievous spark in his eye, and would give you the shirt off his back!
We toured the battlefields in WWII-era Jeeps and were met at every stop by aging witnesses to the carnage of the Normandy invasion. Almost all had lost family members during both World Wars, they had seen their houses destroyed – not once, but twice – and witnessed their lives and communities thrown into turmoil.
They recounted memories that included acts of kindness, sacrifice, bravery and courage shown to them by American soldiers, whom they referred to as their Liberators.
I met an elderly man who searched for almost seventy years to find the name of an American Medic named Mackey who treated his younger brother with lifesaving penicillin and returned to warn the family to seek shelter from an incoming artillery barrage that ultimately destroyed their home. Mackey would die in battle two weeks after their first meeting. A Memorial to Mackey and his fellow Liberators is embedded in the re-construction of his home.
Words with True Meaning
I met young men from the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Poland who knew more about our history and the American Ideal than our average US college graduates. They reconstructed US uniforms to the most minute detail, including re-creating the recipe for CC-2 impregnation used during the Normandy invasion to make the uniforms impervious to mustard gas.
They knew the order of battle for La Fiere Bridge where over 250 paratroopers died to ensure the bridge remained intact for the movement of forces from the invasion beaches inland. They studied the tactics used by the Paratroopers and conducted an eight-mile forced march in combat equipment to, “re-create the experience” and “get their minds right”. No virtual reality – it was all tactile – blisters and all!
I was moved by the respect and veneration the people of Normandy showed for our flag. I rarely see such reverence anymore outside a military base or a Florida retirement community. It was refreshing to hear words like Hero, Sacrifice, Existential, Nazi, Racist, Hate, and Evil used in proper context. We tend to throw these words around to describe our petty political differences or to overstate some insignificant grievance. The words have lost their true meaning.
Our Warrior Caste
The people of France, the Netherlands, and Belgium have adopted fallen US Soldiers who lie in the American cemeteries that dot their landscape. They research their US Soldier and often connect with the families they left behind. They visit their US Soldier and bring fresh flowers on Memorial Day. They use the experience to educate the next generation. On 06 June we joined with many to pay tribute. I found their unsolicited outpouring of respect, love and dedication very touching.
I met young men and women currently serving in uniform. I found these Rangers to be particularly handsome! Many of these men and women have never known a world without conflict. We are fortunate to have them. Find one and thank them! They represent 0.4 percent of the US population with about 80 percent coming from the same military families – our warrior caste.
My trip to Normandy put things in perspective. It reinforced many of my core beliefs and made me thankful for who I am and where I come from. Several families in my neighborhood represented the “Homefront” that was so active, and sacrificed so much during World War II. They placed “Blue Star Flags” in their windows and prayed for my buddies and me — “Their Paratroopers” — while we were in “Harm’s Way”. And for that, I am forever grateful!
While in Normandy I was surrounded by men and women who took an oath, fought and shed blood, and cherished freedom! It reminded me of this Ronald Reagan quote:
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
Next stop….the 75th Anniversary of Bastogne in December 2019. Stay tuned.