MONT SAINT MICHEL, France (June 4, 2012) -- To commemorate the 68th anniversary of D-Day U.S. Special Operation Forces conducted a military free fall nearby one of Normandy's most historic attractions.
Among the jumpers was Fleet Master Chief Roy Maddocks, the senior enlisted leader at U.S. European Command, who said jumping into Normandy reminds people of those who fought to free Europe.
"History could have been a lot different, had our predecessors not come here, those men who actually landed on the beaches or jumped in and fought the Germans to liberate the folks here," Maddocks said.
On June 2, the jump teams launched from an airfield in Cherbourg, on the northern tip of the Cotenin peninsula. Aircraft from 352nd Special Operation Squadron, a U.S. Air Force unit based in Mildenhall, England, flew them to the drop zone. First out were U.S. Air Force personnel from the 321st Special Tactics Squadron. Troops from the Naval Special Warfare Unit 2 also jumped, as did French, German and Russian paratroopers.
When the U.S. Army Special Forces Soldiers left the aircraft, they clustered into football shape. Spectators below, which included family members, tourists and local officials, craned their necks skyward, holding their palms above their foreheads to shadow their eyes. At 7,000 feet, the Soldiers quickly glide away from each other -- a maneuver to create a visual effect, explained Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Parker, a noncommissioned officer who made the jump.
"It looks like a shotgun blast up in the air, when you're looking from the ground," Parker said.
The skydivers check their altimeter at 6,000 feet and start to separate. By 5,000 feet they are waving each other off, as they prepare to pull their rip cords. They had a moment or two for a look at the amazing site below -- green meadow, the blue sea and the medieval buildings of nearby Mont Saint Michel.
A U.N. designated world heritage site, Mont Saint-Michel has more than 3 million visitors annually. The tidal flats surrounding the rock have some of the highest tides in Europe. At low tide, people explore the sandy area surrounding the town. During high tide, it becomes an island, except for one causeway connecting the town to the mainland.
The town's name translates roughly to the "mountain of Saint Michael," who many consider the patron saint of the airborne infantry. In the year 709 A.D., Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, built a small church there, supposedly at the request of Michael, the archangel.
It was the first time that Capt. Stephen Cargill, of the Stuttgart, Germany-based 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, had ever jumped into Normandy. While coming down, Cargill couldn't help but consider the historical battles that took place on the countryside below.
"It's just an amazing to have the opportunity to see something this incredible," Cargill said. "With the historical aspect, it hits that much closer to home."
In the evening, the Special Forces Soldiers went to the Stop Café in Sainte-Mère-Eglise, where troops share stories with World War II veterans who have returned Normandy. For Parker, a combat infantryman who had family that served in Europe during World War II, talking to the older veterans offers a sense of pride, he said.
"It really hits home and lets you know what you're fighting for," Parker said. "You're following in their footsteps."