Tomorrow is the 6th of June. Sixty-nine years ago, the allied forces at war with Hitler’s Germany invaded northern France in what will always be known as D-Day. On that morning in 1944, when Ohioans woke up, the battle in Europe had already been going on for hours. The airborne troops were the first ones to enter the conflict. One local paratroop veteran of that battled died recently, but told his story to our aviation commentator Dan Patterson.
The battle began in the middle of the night along the French Normandy coast where a large peninsula pokes into the ocean. Behind the coastline were small villages, important crossroads and the target of the aerial assault. The advent of aerial warfare in the 1940s meant that warriors were dropped behind the front lines to surprise the enemy and capture important targets. These were elite troops.
Among the paratroops a badge of honor was their uniform, which by necessity included pants with big pockets tucked into their high topped jump boots. It gave them a unique style which the rest of the American Army did not have.
In the book about the airborne troops, Those Devils in Baggy Pants by Ross Carter, he quotes the diary of a German officer killed in action who wrote, "American parachutists...the devils in baggy pants...are less than 100 meters from my outpost...I cannot sleep at night. They pop up everywhere and we never know when or how they will strike next. Seems like the black hearted devils are everywhere."
The evening before all across southern England, American paratroopers had climbed into C-47 transports. Miami Valley resident Jack Reames was one of those men. Private Reames flew into the war that night with over 13,000 men who were the highly trained "point of the spear" attacking occupied Europe. Just three hours behind them were 150,000 assault troops approaching France in the largest armada ever assembled.
Several years ago at his store in Vandalia, Jack told me his story. He was 19 years old, and when he went out the door of the C-47, it was 3:17 in the morning on June 6, 1944. Due to low cloud, German anti-aircraft fire and nervous pilots, the precise plan for a concentrated drop went haywire. Jack and nearly all the paratroopers in over 900 aircraft were scattered all over the area behind the beaches. The village of St. Mere E'glise was the center of the target zone. After he landed in the dark and alone, Jack made his way to the town square, and near a church, in an alley next to a stone garage, is where his war began.
Dawn broke three hours later, and the seaborne invasion began. Even though they weren't where they were supposed to be, these men created chaos behind the beaches and proved the value of the airborne effort. They gathered their forces and equipment and started the job they were sent to do; liberate Europe from the occupation of the Nazis.
Jack Reames fought through that battle and others in Holland too. He was wounded in Belgium late in 1944.
Jack survived the war, and went on to have the great American life: married his wife Helen, raised a family, had a small business. He had a quick smile, a glint in his eye and always a good word.
I asked Jack what he thought of the film Saving Private Ryan, which is about the grittiness and at times desperate experiences of the paratroopers in Normandy. He looked me straight in the eye and said, "all that was missing is what it smelled like."
He died this February and his graveside ceremony was simple and elegant. Six men, also veteran airborne troops, each saluted his ashes, picked up an M-1 rifle and formed a guard of honor and after a lone bugler played "Taps," they fired three salutes, the shots echoing across the snowy landscape.
On this anniversary of the invasion, D-Day, take a moment to reflect on the enormity of what took place on the coast of France. Celebrate the lives of Jack Reames and all who went before him and those yet to follow.
Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com
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