Army Reserve Paratroopers Storm Normandy
June 15, 2011
“This is just a light mist,” Chief Warrant Officer Four Mike Rich yelled to a few hundred Paratroopers standing on the tarmac in Cherbourg, France, as the dark skies above them began to open, “We’re going to drive on with the training, and if it gets too wet we’ll load back onto the busses.”
This was no ordinary jump and the determination to execute the mission could be felt in the air. These paratroopers, from five countries, were about to make the jump of a lifetime " an airborne operation onto a drop zone just outside St. Mere Eglise, France on June 5 " just as their airborne forefathers did 67 years earlier on D-Day 1944. The main event of Operation Airborne Normandy was in jeopardy. Rich, the air officer for Task Force Normandy and the airborne standards officer for the U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) was trying to remain hopeful.
A few minutes later, the assembled paratroopers remained undaunted as they were forced back onto busses to wait for the rain to subside, which gave them time to reflect on their mission.
“In a lot of ways the conditions here today are exactly what my father faced 67 years ago,” said Capt. Ted Jacobs, whose father participated in Operation Overlord, the D-Day invasion. Jacobs was one of 150 Army Reserve Paratroopers from the U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) and the 824th, 421st and 861st Quartermaster Companies who traveled thousands of miles aboard C-130’s to participate in commemorations of the D-Day invasion that hastened the fall of Nazi Germany.
Annual ceremonies are hosted each year in all of the key cities throughout Normandy, and Army Reserve paratroopers, along with small contingents from the 82nd Airborne Division, 101st Airborne Division, and the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, participated in each.
USACAPOC(A) has been a major participant in the planning and execution of the commemoration activities over the past three years and provides color guards, formations of paratroopers, and key mission planners. Paratroopers from the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Holland also participate in the commemoration events. All told, there were more than 500 paratroopers on the mission: conduct joint airborne training and honor our veterans for their heroic actions on D-Day 1944.
Civilians from across Europe descend on the small towns of Normandy often wearing vintage and replica uniforms and driving restored vehicles of all sorts from 1943 Harley military motorcycles to fully outfitted ambulances. Many make coming to Normandy a yearly pilgrimage.
Soldiers were selected from across USACAPOC(A) to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime training event. Picking just 150 Soldiers from more than 12,000 in the command is no easy task. “I brought my Best Warriors,” said 7th PSYOP Group Command Sgt. Maj. Philip Houseworth, “They did a great job at the CAPOC Best Warrior Competition and I thought they should be here for this.”
One of those selected by Houseworth was Sgt. Nathaniel Bier. “I’m real emotional right now,” Bier said while on Utah Beach. Having just heard a speech about the sacrifices that took place on the ground on which he was now standing, Bier found it hard to hold back his emotions. “I feel honored to have the opportunity to come out here and meet them (D-Day veterans) face-to-face and shake their hands and say thank you,” said Bier, whose grandfather participated in the D-Day invasion. “That is one of the best things I will always remember about this trip.”
Lance Cpl. James White, a team leader with 4th Battalion, The Parachute Regiment of the U.K.’s Royal Army, was one of 15 British paratroopers given the opportunity to join USACAPOC(A) as it toured a number of key battlegrounds including Pegasus Bridge, an example of a perfectly executed Airborne mission by British paratroopers on D-Day.
“This is part of our history,” said White. “So you learn about it when you join the Battalion. It’s nice to come here and be on the ground, and put yourself in the position of these Soldiers. I’m really looking forward to jumping (into Normandy), I love jumping.”
White, just a few days earlier had been slated to jump alongside his American comrades in England, but high-winds grounded that portion of the operation. USACAPOC(A) had coordinated training with the 4th Para and the Royal Air Force in order to train it’s paratroopers on exiting a British aircraft with British jumpmasters. Meanwhile, American jumpmasters were to conduct Airborne Operations with British Paratroopers on board American C-130’s.
Having scrubbed the jump in the U.K., the paratroopers on the wet tarmac in Cherbourg were even more antsy than normal to get the mission going. But, they never lost sight of what was really important. “It’s disappointing we didn’t get to jump, but that’s not why we’re here” said Spc. Kristen Tobey, a Military Information Support Operations Solider with USACAPOC(A) Headquarters and Headquarters Command, “We’re here to remember the sacrifices that were made.”
For the paratroopers assembled here the job was more than a jump, it was a chance to show respect to those who paved the way for the successful invasion of France. But the outlook was still grim. Having waited out the downpour, completed sustained airborne training -- a refresher on exiting, parachuting, landing, and emergency techniques -- these paratroopers loaded the airplanes and waited for good news.
And wait they did. For five hours they hoped against hope and sat fully rigged and ready to go. But unlike the airborne operations of 67 years ago, this jump was not meant to be. “This is the exact same thing that happened on D-Day, the only difference is that we won’t be able to come back at 2 a.m. and complete the mission,” said Staff Sgt. Christina Hipenbecker, one of USACAPOC(A)’s jumpmasters. “We sent an aircraft to see if the pilots could find a hole in the ceiling, but they could not find one. We would have loved to jump, but the risk of getting someone hurt for a training mission, just isn’t worth it.” Hipenbecker concluded.
Regardless, these Paratroopers were still able to complete the real mission " honor the sacrifices of World War II Soldiers. As soon as the airborne operation was officially cancelled, the paratroopers were loaded onto busses and driven to St. Mere-Eglise to kick off a series of remembrance ceremonies up and down the coast of Normandy, culminating in a ceremony at Utah Beach.
“Just being here means a lot, in the airborne community, this is our Mecca,” said Chief Warrant Officer Five Tom Travis, the commander of the USASOC(A) Flight Detachment.
See the large collection of photos from Airborne Normandy at www.flickr.com/usacapoc.
What it is all about.
By Lt. Col. Gerald Ostlund, USACAPOC(A) PAO
There I was at the 67th Anniversary of Operation Overlord. Some 300 plus Army Paratroopers, including 120 from the Army Reserve’s USACAPOC(A), a group of Army Reserve Riggers, and our French, British, Dutch and German paratrooper comrades assembled in St. Mere Eglise in early June to commemorate the D-Day landings. We had taken staff rides to the important locations where so many gave their lives for our freedom " and we’d participated in a number of ceremonies in towns throughout the region.
It was all very inspiring and emotional " yes, even the toughest of our paratroopers got a little quieter, stood off by themselves, and a few even expressed their awe at being on hallowed ground.
But the highlight of the trip for me was meeting Raymond Sylvester " a survivor of the D-Day landings.
Raymond, a mortar man in the Chemical Corps on 6 June 1944, attended a ceremony at the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach on June 4, 2011 where I, along with about 20 from our group got the chance to meet him. He stayed after the ceremony to talk with whoever wanted to chat, and I asked him if he’d mind taking a picture with some of our paratroopers.
He said he’d be delighted.
We took the standard “formation shot” with Raymond wearing his Sgt. Maj. Insignia on his uniform (hope I can still wear mine at that age " and have it still fit). All of us pulled out our cameras and had our group shot taken about two-dozen times.
Then something amazing happened " there was a lull, so I asked Raymond a simple question " “when did you come ashore?”
He smiled and opened up, telling us his story. He came up Utah " right where BG Roosevelt assaulted the beach. He was on the second wave. He pulled some pictures out of his old “pinks and browns” (what they called the brown jacket and pants which had a pink look) and told us a story for each. There was the burned out German troop carrier in Brittany, the charred German Soldier half way out of his tank in the east of France.
What happened next was even better. The Cemetery staff asked us to form an impromptu formation and to be part of a ceremony to lay a Dutch wreath at the memorial. We quickly did, and we asked Sgt. Maj. Sylvester into our formation " front row center. His presence with us was very poignant for all who witnessed the quiet ceremony.
I told Raymond I was honored to meet him. He, without hesitation, told me he was in wonderment and said, “I don’t know why you guys make such a big deal out of me. I’m honored to meet each of you.”