By By CHUCK CANNONAugust 31, 2009
FORT POLK, La. -- Soldiers from Fort Polk's 1st Battalion (Airborne), 509th Infantry Regiment, filled the south Texas sky with silk Aug. 21 as they parachuted in to kick-start the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion's annual reunion.
The jump at Hall Drop Zone on Camp Bullis, located on the northwest side of San Antonio, took place before a crowd of former Geronimos who ran the gamut from current-day Iraq veterans to troopers who were part of the first combat jump in U.S. Army history on Nov. 8, 1942 at Tafarquay Airport on the hot sands of Oran, Algeria in north Africa.
"These young men are fantastic," said Richard Fisco, a veteran of that first combat jump and survivor of the Battle of the Bulge. "It makes me think about the days when I could do the things they do. That was a long time ago, but it is still vivid in my mind."
The 509th PIB made five combat jumps during World War II - more than any other unit. A
handful of the veterans participated in one or more of the jumps and were happy to renew old
friendships and share their stories with current day warriors.
"I've been to about three or four of these reunions," said James Maynard Pike. "It's good to see old friends and comrades."
Pike, a WWII veteran who parachuted into southern France with the 509th, said he feels a kinship with today's Geronimos.
"They are carrying on what we started," he said.
Sgt. Maj. Brian Harmon, the S-3 sergeant major for 1st Bn (Abn), 509th Inf Reg, said he was impressed with the memories of the WWII Soldiers.
"They can remember everything - even down to the smallest detail," Harmon said. "I have trouble remembering what I did last week. They are amazing."
Harmon said that while there is a kinship with the WWII vets, their wartime circumstances were quite different.
"Most Soldiers today are married - they weren't," Harmon said. "Most were drafted. When they left, they didn't go home until the war was over.
"Today's Soldiers are mostly married. We go home, reacquaint ourselves with our Families, and then go back."
Harmon said both groups of Geronimos fought tough battles, "but theirs were worse. The firepower we have today has changed the face of battle. If we can't take something, we drop a bomb on it. "They had to take it by hand."
Pike knew first-hand what Harmon spoke about. Twenty minutes after his jump into southern France on Aug. 15, 1944, Pike took a bullet through his chest. He looked back on that day with mixed emotions.
"I was taken to a French house and when I came to, there were two of the prettiest little gals I ever saw tending to me," Pike said. "But everything I had was gone - including my special paratrooper boots.
"I learned later that my buddy Philip saved my life by dragging me to help. He died in February 1945 in Belgium at the Battle of the Bulge."
The reunion ran through Aug. 23. Most of the time was spent swapping war stories. On Aug. 22, there was a banquet that featured a dance and presentation that brought tears to everyone's eyes.
Spc. Philip Ford Jr. was a member of 3rd Bn (Abn), 509th Inf Reg in Fort Richardson, Alaska, when he was killed during a deployment to Baghdad, Iraq, Dec. 10, 2006. Ford's Family had his boots bronzed and placed at his gravesite. Vandals damaged the boots earlier this year and members of the 509th chipped in and purchased a new plaque - compete with bronzed boots and other Geronimo mementos. Ford's dad, Philip Ford Sr., was on hand to receive the gift. He was also made an honorary member of the 509th PIB.
"I understand now why my son was proud to be a Geronimo," Ford said, choking back tears. "You will always be special to me and my Family and I plan on making as many of these reunions as I can."
One of Fort Polk's Soldiers, Staff Sgt. Joel Hamilton, was the recipient of Ford's gratitude. An original copy of a cartoon accompanying the WWII airborne song, "Blood on the Risers," was auctioned off as a fund-raiser for the 509th PIB Association. When Ford overheard Hamilton say how much he admired the piece, he won the bid - you guessed it, $509 - then presented the framed cartoon to Hamilton.
"I couldn't believe it," said Hamilton, air NCO for the Fort Polk Geronimos. "I mean, I had just met the man and he bought this for me. It was awesome."
Ford said he just wanted to give back what he could to an organization that meant so much to his son.
"He said he would like to have it, so I wanted him to have it," Ford said. "It's the least I could do for someone who is willing to fight for my freedom."
After the banquet, a parquet floor and DJ invited the Geronimos and their Families to dance away the evening to the strains of Benny Goodman and other 40s and 50s era musicians. The crowd was also treated to an impromptu rendition of "Stand By Me," performed by four Fort Polk Soldiers. Although there was a total lack of harmony, the quartet was warmly received.
The next reunion is planned for the summer of 2010 in Sacramento, Calif. Hamilton, looking back over the three-day event, said he hopes he has the opportunity to attend future reunions.
"Everyone had a great time," he said. "They enjoyed the visit - both our guys and the older guys. It's important that we share our stories and continue the legacy of the Geronimos."