By Tiffany Nabors, The BayonetOctober 30, 2009
Fort Benning, Ga. - More than 30 World War II veterans and a host of family and friends attended the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, annual reunion.
The event site alternates between other cities throughout the country and Fort Benning.
Operation Varsity was the focus of the reunion, said LTC Jon Ring, battalion commander.
Operation Varsity was one of the major WWII operations for the 507th during which paratroopers jumped into Germany, he said.
Reunion attendees gathered Thursday at Fryar Drop Zone for an Operation Varsity presentation that included a vignette and a model representation of the terrain. The veterans discussed their memories of the mission.
Ring and several other 507th Soldiers exited a C-130 Hercules using the T-11 parachutes, which will replace the T-10D parachutes.
The Texas-based Liberty Jump Team also jumped. They exited a C-47 Sky Train that made two flight runs over Normandy during WWII. After being repaired, the plane was purchased by the Danish royal family and is now housed at the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum in Titusville, Fla.
The Liberty Jump Team is an international group of jumpers who travel the world commemorating the D-Day invasion. Many of the jumpers have military experience.
Team member Mark Smith of Baton Rouge, La., completed his 10th jump with the team Thursday. LTC(R) Gordon Smith, Smith's father, jumped into Normandy during the war. His sister and Liberty Jump Team Corporate Owner Jil Launay, presented him with a plaque that honored their father who died in September.
Smith spent much of his childhood at Fort Benning when his father was stationed with the unit. He said he has many memories of the post and a strong connection to the airborne tradition.
"It means American spirit and honor to me," said Smith, who served in the Navy for eight years. "These guys are wonderful, from when my dad did it to the guys present. We all just get old, but we don't lose our heart for it."
Following the jumps, the reunion also included civilian jumps off the 34-foot tower on Eubanks Field, a Saturday evening banquet and a concluding breakfast on Sunday.
Ring was pleased with the number of family and friends who traveled for the reunion.
"The 507th Association is a unique association," Ring said. "You have a number of World War II veterans, and then there are a significant number of veterans' sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, who have the same passion as the veterans themselves."
The battalion commander said his goal was to guarantee a connection between current Soldiers and the unit's history.
"We want to ensure the continuity of the full regimental history," Ring said. "The association is going to lose a lot of its veterans. This is an important year to bond those generations and missions into one and take forth the spirit of those paratroopers (who served) 65 years ago."
MAJ(R) Donald Graul said he has attended the reunion about 15 times.
"A military man remembers the first organization that he serves," the 92-year-old said. "My first and longest (assignment) was the 507th Regiment."
Graul went through Airborne School in 1942, and became an officer after attending Officer Candidate School in 1943. During WWII, Graul was held as a prisoner in Poland for 11 months. The retiree now lives in Virgina, but like most of the veterans, makes the 507th reunion a priority each year. He said the event is something he looks forward to and it keeps him going from year to year.
"Coming back, I don't know necessarily what to expect," Graul said. "But I know it's not going to be bad."
And seeing the others who just keep coming back is the best part for him.
"I'm very, very appreciative and thankful for the ones that come and say 'Hi, Don. How are you''" Graul said. "That is a reason to live."