Veteran makes anniversary jump

June 15, 1994|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Sun Staff Writer

The first time Lee Hulett jumped from a plane over France, he was a frightened 18-year-old paratrooper who landed miles off course on the roof of a German officers' barracks.

Nearly two weeks ago, the 69-year-old Guilford man re-enacted his jump, this time, landing right on target before thousands of cheering spectators commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy.

"It felt exactly the same," Mr. Hulett said of his most recent jump, June 5.

"I was just as scared the second time as I was the first time," he said.

An insurance salesman and sky-diving instructor, Mr. Hulett returned to Normandy with 39 other former paratroopers to commemorate D-Day, June 6, 1944, the greatest amphibious assault in history.

Mr. Hulett did not jump on D-Day, but fought in Italy before parachuting into southern France on Aug. 15, 1944.

A member of the 517th Parachute Infantry, Mr. Hulett spent 18 months in combat before returning to the United States, where he became a teacher, working in Montgomery County for seven years.

He quit his teaching job to become an insurance salesman and began sky diving as a hobby after attending a veterans' reunion in 1982.

Since then, he has jumped from planes nearly 1,300 times. He has also jumped from a 1,150-foot television antennae in Mobile, Ala., and from the New River Gorge Bridge near Beckley Springs, W.Va. His jump over St.-Mere-Eglise in Normandy was No. 1,291.

Those who know Mr. Hulett say the World War II veteran inspires them.

"He still has his old gear. It makes us feel young again," said Matthew Hannon, a World War II Navy veteran and commander of the Rockville Memorial Chapter of the Disabled American Veterans, where Mr. Hulett, who was wounded in combat, is a member. "At his age, still to be jumping . . . . You couldn't get me out of those airplanes."

Despite his extensive sky-diving experience, Mr. Hulett spent two days preparing for his Normandy jump, learning how to operate his parachute, performing practice jumps and becoming familiar with the drop zone where he lands.

Since his first jump over France, parachuting has undergone many changes. Unlike the rounded parachutes Mr. Hulett used as a young man, sky divers now use rectangular canopies that let them descend more slowly.

"You land like stepping on eggs," Mr. Hulett said of the contemporary equipment. "They're real safe. The old ones, you landed -- 'Bam!' It was a real jump."

The day of his jump, Mr. Hulett and the others ascended to 3,400 feet above sea level, giving him plenty of time to pull his reserve parachute should the main canopy fail. As a paratrooper, he jumped from a combat plane 400 feet above the ground, he said.

"That's no time to get a reserve out," Mr. Hulett said. "You just hit the ground."

Everything went well at the commemorative jump.

"Everybody had a real soft landing," he said. "The sky was full of parachutes."

Despite his sky-diving experience, Mr. Hulett experiences a tickle of fear before each jump.

"A scared person takes all precautions," he said. "The thrill of the sport is overcoming fear."

While in Europe on his recent trip, Mr. Hulett visited EuroDisney, stayed with a French family and attended a banquet that attracted more than 1,000 people.

As Mr. Hulett and other veterans strolled through the town's streets, French citizens of all ages approached them, thanking the former soldiers for freeing them from Nazi occupation.

"We were treated royally," Mr. Hulett said. "Children of 5 and 6 years old would say, 'Merci,' thanking us for liberating them."

Although Mr. Hulett is home, he doesn't plan to stop with the Normandy jump. By his 70th birthday Nov. 24, he wants to become the oldest person in the United States to meet all the requirements of a California-based parachuting organization called BASE, which stands for Building, Antennae, Span, Earthform.

Members of the group try to jump from each structure.

Mr. Hulett's antennae and gorge dives satisfied two of those requirements.

Next, he plans to jump from a 42-story skyscraper and a cliff, both of which he refuses to identify because sky diving from them is illegal.

"I'm not afraid to die," Mr. Hulett said. "I'm afraid not to live."

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