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June 06, 2006

H-5, D-Day.

Donald R. Burgett - a Screaming Eagle of the 101st Airborne who dropped on D-Day. An excerpt from his book, Currahee! A Screaming Eagle At Normandy, which is well worth the read.

Screaming Eagle before loading the aircraft

The time was 1:14 A.M. June 6, 1944. Suddenly the green light flashed on.

"Let's go," screamed Lieutenant Muir at the top of his voice, and he, along with Carter and Thomas gave the big bundle a shove. Lieutenant Muir followed it out; Carter did a quick left turn and followed him into the prop blast; Thomas did a right turn and followed Carter. I could see their static lines snap tight against the edge of the door and vibrate there with the force of the outside wind pulling on them.

"Go," a voice screamed in my brain! "Hurry!" Speed was the most important thing now, so we would all land as close together as possible. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion again, but I knew that it was really happening in just fractions of seconds as I made my right turn into the door and with a left pivot leaped into dark space.

There were thirteen men following me out the door, but I couldn't see any of them. Doubled up and grasping my reserve chute, I could feel the rush of air, hear the crackling of the canopy as it unfurled, followed by the sizzling suspension lines, then the connector links whistling past the back of my helmet. Instinctively the muscles of my body tensed for the opening shock, which nearly unjointed me when the canopy blasted open. From the time I left the door till the chute opened, less than three seconds had elapsed. I pulled the risers apart to check the canopy and saw tracer bullets passing through it; at the same moment I hit the ground and came in backward so hard that I was momentarily stunned.

I lay on my back shaking my head; the chute had collapsed itself. The first thing I did was to draw my .45, cock the hammer back and slip the safety on. Troopers weren't issued pistols, but my father had purchased this one from a gun collector in Detroit and sent it to me in a package containing a date-and-nut cake. Captain Davis kept it in his possession for me and let me carry it on field problems. He had returned it to me when we entered the marshaling area.

The pilots were supposed to drop us between 600 and 700 feet, but I know that my drop was between 250 and 300 feet. The sky was lit up like the Fourth of July. I lay there for a moment and gazed at the spectacle. It was awe inspiring; I have never seen anything like it before or since. But I couldn't help wondering at the same time if I had got the opening shock first or hit the ground first; they were mighty close together.

The snaps on the harness were almost impossible to undo, and as I lay there on my back working on them, another plane came in low and diagonally over the field. The big ship was silhouetted against the lighter sky with long tongues of exhaust flame flashing along either side of the body. Streams of tracers from several machine guns flashed upward to converge on it. Then I saw vague, shadowy figures of troopers plunging downward. Their chutes were pulling out of the pack trays and just starting to unfurl when they hit the ground. Seventeen men hit the ground before their chutes had time to open. They made a sound like large ripe pumpkins being thrown down to burst against the ground.

"That dirty son of a bitch pilot," I swore to myself, "he's hedgehopping and killing a bunch of troopers just to save his own ass. I hope he gets shot down in the Channel and drowns real slow."

There wasn't any sense in going to those men, for I had seen the results of me hitting the ground with unopened chutes before. If by some miracle one of them were still alive, he would be better off to be left alone to die as quickly as possible; it would be more merciful.

By this time I was free of my harness, had my rifle assembled and loaded, and had crawled to my canopy. Cutting a panel out with my knife, I stuffed it into a pocket to use for camouflage later, and then started out to find someone else, anyone else. More planes went over, but they were flying so low, fast and scattered that it was impossible to orient myself with their direction. I would have to play this one by instinct. In fact, all the troopers would have to do it this way. We were so widely scattered that all the months of practiced assemblies in the dark were shot in the ass. We would have to do this one on our own.

The night was one of those mild June nights that poets write about, but this was neither the time nor the place for poetry. There was the booming of antiaircraft guns and mortars all around and the close stitching of German light and heavy machine guns raking the skies and hedgerows. Small arms fire erupted everywhere and sometimes it broke out hotter than the hinges on hell's gates in one spot. It would rise in ferocity until the fire power became a loud roar, then gradually taper off, sometimes even coming to a complete silence. I could see a mental picture of a few paratroopers running into a German fortification and fighting until they either took the place or died trying.

Small private wars erupted to the right and left, near an far, most of them lasting from fifteen minutes to half an hour, with anyone's guess being good as to who the victors were. The heavy hedgerow country muffled the sounds, while the night air magnified them. It was almost impossible to tell how far away the fights were and sometimes even in what direction. The only thing I could sure of was that a lot of men were dying in this nightmarish labyrinth. During this time I had no success in finding anyone, friend or foe. To be crawling up and down hedgerows, alone, deep in enemy country with a whole ocean between yourself and the nearest allies sure makes a man feel about as lonely as a man can get.

Paratroops moving through a french village on D-Day

John | Permalink | Comments (4) | Historical Stuff
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