'Old men' jump again, honor fallen comrades D-DAY: PRELUDE TO TRIUMP

June 06, 1994|By Chicago Tribune

AMFREVILLE, France -- Fifty years ago, they were hardly more than boys, frightened young men dropping out of the night sky to face an unseen enemy in a titanic clash of arms.

Old men now, they returned yesterday and jumped again -- 41 of them, leaping from World War II planes to relive glory in a speeding moment of descent, and to honor friends who died in Normandy in June 1944.

One such veteran, Earl W. Draper, 70, of Inverness, Fla., had another brush with death yesterday. His parachute cords tangled after he jumped from a C-47 at 3,200 feet, and he was forced to release it. His less maneuverable reserve parachute dropped him to earth far more quickly and, for those watching, terrifyingly.

Mr. Draper hit the ground hard, falling well behind the intended drop zone and narrowly missing a parked bus. Flown by helicopter to a French hospital, he was reported in good spirits with a sprained back.

"My hat's off to him," said Col. Richard Bridges, an Army spokesman. "He made over 40 jumps during the war, but he said this one was probably his last."

The other 40 American veterans landed safely, though some were blown miles off course by high winds. The oldest veteran, Rene Dussaq, 83, of Encino, Calif., was lost far from the drop zone and eventually was found by French firefighters. Associated Press reported that his wife, Charlotte, was frantic until she was informed that Mr. Dussaq, a former movie stuntman, was OK and having a drink in Ste.-Mere-Eglise, two hours after he disappeared.

On the eve before the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the parachute drop was the highlight of festivities along 50 miles of Normandy coastline, the invasion front in 1944. Near Caen in eastern Normandy, 1,000 British and French troops re-enacted their 1944 parachute drop in the presence of Prince Charles, heir to the British throne.

Yesterday's parachute drop was in doubt because of adverse weather. As on the eve of D-Day in 1944, it rained throughout the day Saturday. But the sun came out yesterday, and even though gray clouds began closing in by the afternoon drop time, the jump went ahead.

"We were were already up in the air and they were ready to cancel it," said Guy Whidden, 70, of Frederick, Md. "Then they said, 'Let's go for it.' "

The Pentagon had tried to dissuade the veterans from jumping because of fears for their safety. But the men who faced the might of the German army in 1944 weren't about to be deterred by brass hats.

Above an audience that included several members of Congress, other veterans and their wives, widows of their fallen comrades and French dignitaries, the old men jumped. They were followed by 500 American and 60 French airborne troops, jumping from 800 feet.

Bill Priest, 70, of St. Petersburg, Fla., carried with him photos of friends who died in the Normandy invasion. "We also dedicated this jump to the guys in Vietnam and Desert Storm."

Mr. Priest said American young people seem to be ignorant of the meaning of D-Day, but not the French. "Over here, they know every town," he said. "They lost something and they got it back."

After yesterday's parachute drop, the airborne troops marched 2 1/2 miles into Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the first French town liberated in the early hours of June 6, 1944. There, the veteran jumpers were not the only heroes of the day; almost every American found him or herself being applauded in a town that has had a love affair with the United States since regaining its freedom.

French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur was among those who joined in the applause. "Ste.-Mere-Eglise and the whole of France know what we owe you and those men who laid down their lives for freedom," he said in a brief speech to the veterans in the town square. "And beyond the victory in 1945, we know the part played by the United States in maintaining peace on European territory."

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