Veterans hope to relive '44 glory over Normandy OLD SOLDIERS PLAN D-DAY JUMP

April 19, 1994|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Sun Staff Writer

They were eager and brash and willing to die for their country.

Fifty years later, nothing has changed.

Lee Hulett and Guy Whidden parachuted into France in 1944 as part of the huge Allied force that eventually defeated Germany in World War II.

Now the two Marylanders plan on joining three dozen other aging paratroopers and re-enacting their jumps in June as part of the Allied commemoration of the 50th anniversary of D-Day.

Mr. Hulett, who lives in Columbia, is 69. Mr. Whidden, of Frederick, is 70.

"What a show it'll be," Mr. Hulett says. "Guys who haven't jumped in 50 years. So a couple of us break a leg. The thrill of doing it will exceed the factor of the risk.

"A paratrooper's philosophy is: 'I'm not afraid to die. I'm afraid not to live.' "

The veterans range in age from 68 to 83. They were all young paratroopers in World War II who tumbled from shuddering planes into nightmarish combat.

Half jumped on D-Day as part of the greatest sea and air armada ever: a quarter of a million troops, 3,000 planes and 7,000 ships.

Now, in their twilight, they want to jump again -- for their buddies, their country and themselves.

"These are not old creaky guys," says Richard Mandich of San Diego, the 69-year-old veteran of the 101st Airborne Division's "Screaming Eagles" who organized the Return to Normandy group. "They are in good condition mentally and physically."

Mr. Mandich, a retired engineer who surfs, says the men want to jump in tribute to all soldiers -- men and women, friend and foe -- who served in World War II.

"It's a nice opportunity to pay tribute to all those people," Mr. Whidden says.

"I thank God that I'm physically capable of doing it. Ten years from now, none of us will be doing it.

"It will kind of close the door on an era, write the last chapter of a history."

The former paratroopers had to jump three times to demonstrate their fitness.

That was no problem for Mr. Hulett, a big-voiced insurance salesman who also teaches skydiving.

He has gone out of a plane more than 1,200 times, jumping in a Santa Claus suit for Christmas parties and in the buff for nudist conventions.

Mr. Whidden, tamer by comparison but no shrinking violet, is not so "jump happy," as he puts it.

In fact, says the retired teacher and wrestling coach, "I don't like it that much. It's contrary to human nature. We're not really sky people, are we?"

Nevertheless, because his desire to return to Normandy is strong, he jumped three times last year on his own and once in San Diego in February with the other veterans.

A runner and weightlifter, Mr. Whidden was rusty. So he flew with Mr. Hulett earlier this month for additional instruction, but did not jump.

"I've got one jump left in me," Mr. Whidden says, sitting in his living room. "I'm saving it for Normandy.

"Even if I knew I was going to break a leg, I'd still jump. I'm 70 years old. If I have to go I'd rather go. . . ."

He glances at his wife, Julie, across from him.

They've been married 44 years and raised two children. She looks horrified.

"Let me put it this way," he says. "I don't want to lie in bed and die."

A determined group

About 400 American paratroopers will jump into France June 5 on the first day of the two-day commemoration. D-Day was June 6, 1944.

The veterans want to jump immediately after the paratroopers.

They plan to do this even though the Pentagon has yet to decide whether it will sanction their jump, fly them to France, provide them lodging or even include them in its official program.

Lt. Col. Alfred Lott, spokesman for the 50th Anniversary of World War II Commemoration Committee, says the decision rests with the secretary of defense.

Colonel Lott says military officials are concerned about liability and the older men's safety.

Mr. Mandich bristles at the Pentagon's procrastination.

He says he asked in January whether the Return to Normandy group could jump. The veterans will go with or without Pentagon approval, he says.

He says the French government supports the veterans.

And the veterans have arranged for their own planes and parachutes and are willing to pay their own way.

"If they want to stop us, let them try," he says.

"What are they going to do, post armed guards to prevent us from getting on the planes?"

Unless you're the Pentagon wary of sky-high lawsuits, it's hard ,, to argue with the old paratroopers.

They're the men who, fresh out of high school, drank beer and bellowed the airborne's popular song, "Blood on the Risers," to the tune of "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

There was blood upon the risers, there were brains upon the 'chute / Intestines were a'dangling from his paratrooper's boots / They picked him up still in his 'chute and poured him from his boots / He ain't gonna jump no more!

"We were hell on wheels, I'll tell you," Mr. Hulett says. "It was drilled into us that we could whip any five sailors and any three Marines. Then we'd go into town and get our ass kicked.

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