In July of 2016 I joined a tour group and took an 11-day trip to Europe to tour World War 2 battle sites in France, Belgium and Germany - places that some of our Indiana veterans once walked on or flew over. This series of articles is a summary of what I saw and learned there as I followed the path of American heroes who answered the call of duty over 75 years ago.
When many people think of the invasion of Normandy on D-Day the first images that come to their minds are those of ships, landing crafts and allied forces storming the beaches.
The actual invasion, however, began 6-7 hours earlier when shortly before midnight on June 5th more than 1,000 C-47 transport planes lifted from runways in England and traveled across the English Channel. They carried in their bellies the 13,100 paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions which were headed toward Utah Beach on the far west side of the invasion beach heads.
At the same time, the British 6th Airborne Division headed into the skies toward drop zones south and east of Sword Beach on the far east side of the invasion beach heads.
Closely behind the paratroopers were another almost 4,000 troops that were carried by wooden gliders pulled behind transport planes which, after the towing cord was released, attempted safe landings under the cover of darkness and with no engines to guide them in their descent.
The designated drop zones for these aerial troops were not the beaches that would soon be invaded at morning's light but strategic points slightly inland from Utah and Sword Beaches. These were ground locations, villages and towns that were determined to be critical in protecting and facilitating the inland movements of the forces that would soon be approaching from the shore and securing their respective flanks.
The drops were highly dangerous; 28 of the U.S. planes were shot down before releasing their human cargo from the sky.
The majority of C-47 planes successfully released their warrior passengers, but many of the planes actually missed their designated drop zones due to the canopy of darkness and clouds and the pilots' wild efforts to avoid the shells fired from German antiaircraft weapons.
The men who did land safely were spread out across the Cotentin Peninsula in small clusters. They were presented with the challenge of not only avoiding enemy detection by but locating and linking up with other elements from their respective divisions, which were in many cases far away from each other.
In some cases, it took days or weeks for the men to find their respective parent units.
Nevertheless, the courageous and determined paratroopers accomplished their objectives creatively with less manpower and firepower than anticipated.
Ultimately, the men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions helped clear the way for the Allied advance toward Cherbourg, a critical port in France's Cotentin Peninsula.
On July 4th, 2016 my tour group visited some of the key locations in Normandy where the Airborne troops were dropped and engaged the Germans.
Our first stop was at Saint-Come-du-Mont, a small village south of Utah Beach. A wonderful D-Day Experience museum is located there which is dedicated to telling the stories of the allied paratroopers and explaining their critical role on D-day.
The primary objective of the 82nd Airborne Division was to capture the village of Sainte-Mere'-Eglise and disrupt German efforts for a counter-offensive against the allied forces landing at Utah Beach.
Our tour group visited the charming village of Sainte-Mere'-Eglise and saw the famous 13th century church where the descending parachute of paratrooper John Steele of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment became caught in the church's bell tower, temporarily trapping him there high above the ground. He was stuck for several hours and feigned death before getting captured by the Germans. He later managed to escape from them.
The church has memorialized Steele with a parachute and paratrooper mannequin hanging high above from the church steeple.
Inside the church a beautiful stained glass window pays tribute to the 82nd Airborne Division that liberated the village from the Germans.
The primary objectives of the 101st Airborne Division was to capture the exits out from Utah Beach (which had been flooded by the Germans), secure the southern flanks of the landings at the beach and stave off German counterattacks.
Our tour group walked some of the sacred ground of their drop zone and visited a memorial erected in honor of the division's work.
Inside the museum is an actual C-47 transport plane which now serves as a flight simulator. We boarded for the simulated flight and considered what it might have felt like for the airborne troops to ride through explosions peppering the air with flak as they anxiously waited to jump out of the plane.
Our visit at Sainte-Come-du-Mont included a stop at the famous house-turned-museum at Dead Man's Corner. Originally used as a headquarters for German troops, the house was taken over by the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.
We also made a short visit to Angoville-Au-Plain, a tiny village not far from Utah Beach. It was the site of some heavy fighting from June 6th- 8th as American forces moved inland into German controlled territory.
During the ensuing combat the town's local church, built in the 5th century, was used as an impromptu aid station. Two Army Medics from the 101st Airborne Division, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment: Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore stayed behind in the church and tended to over 75 wounded during the 3-day battle.
Among the wounded Allied troops treated by Wright and Moore there were several German soldiers and 1 civilian boy. We saw the blood stains of the wounded still visible on several of the white pine pews.
The village mayor greeted us in French and told the story of the heroic medics as our local tour guide, Rudy interpreted for us.
During group's lunch stop we commemorated Independence Day which was taking place back in the U.S. Rick, one of our tour members and a retired college professor of history and political science, recited the first 30 lines of the Declaration of Independence and I gave a prayer of thanks for our freedom.
And on this particular day much of our gratitude was directed toward the brave men who started the D-day invasion by flying the planes and jumping out from them into harms' way in support of the beach landings.
Next time: The Dead: American and German Cemeteries at Normandy
Ronald P. May, USN (Ret.), is author of the book, "Our Service, Our Stories". He helps veterans share and preserve the stories of their military service. For more information or to tell your story, contact May at 317-435-7636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Facebook at Our Service, Our Stories.