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World Battlefronts: Parachute Landing in Normandy

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The night before D-Day, few of the paratrooper comrades of TIME Correspondent William Walton tried to sleep. After midnight they turned out, climbed into EUR-475. They were the spear head; some of them would not live to see that day’s dawn. Walton, a qualified parachutist attached to the outfit, crawled in with them, was soon over France. He cabled:

I plunged out of the plane door happy to be leaving a ship that was heading toward flak and more Germans. The jump was from such low altitude there was only a moment to look around in the moonlight after my chute opened. The fields looked so small that one couldn’t miss a tree or hedge. Anyway I couldn’t.

I landed in a pear tree, a rather good shock absorber. But the trouble was I didn’t filter on through to the ground; instead I dangled about three feet above ground unable to swing far enough to touch anything.

My chute harness slipped up around my neck in a strangle hold, covering the knife in my breast pocket. I was helpless, a perfect target for snipers and I could hear some of them not far away.

In a hoarse, frightened voice I kept whispering the password, hoping someone would hear and help. From a nearby hedge I heard voices. I hung still a moment, breathless.

Friends. Then I heard them more clearly. Never has a Middle Western accent sounded better. I called a little louder. Quietly Sergeant Auge, a fellow I knew, crept out of the hedge, tugged at the branches and with his pigsticker cut my suspension cords. I dropped like an overripe pear.

It took me two seconds flat to struggle out of my harness and drag my typewriter-laden frame into the hedge. There were three of us there, moving through the shadows one by one.

We picked up five more men in the next hour and a half. It was four in the morning before we joined the brigadier general, who headed our jump. He did a wonderful job of assembling men, forming patrols to guard our perimeter and feel out German strength.

Soon after dawn, he decided our position was not only untenable, it was tough. The only escape was across three-quarters of a mile of swamp to a railway track.

Into the Swamp. At 7:30 we plunged into the chest-deep swamp, holding our guns overhead and wading. Sometimes you’d step into a pothole up to your neck. When machine-gun bullets started pinging around us the sweat began to trickle. Water filled our pockets and every ounce became a pound. A few men were killed in that crossing, but most of us got across to the railway. By then our last ounce of energy seemed gone. But we went on two miles, panting and puffing up the track to dry land. Snipers were still taking a wham at us every now & then. Half our equipment was gone, but my typewriter was waterproofed, and I have it still.

Today is D plus three. Nobody has had his boots off yet. Until yesterday we were surrounded, under constant fire. There will be more of it. But the beachhead forces have joined up with us and now the shells are going in the other direction.

In the first 72 hours we had only three hours of sleep, wrapped in parachutes out in the open.

But today my friends captured a Todt organization headquarters and found cognac and wine. So for lunch there were shell eggs (opposite: dried) and cognac with a stew compounded of vegetables and D rations, alt this sitting in an apple orchard in full bloom. It would be lovely if you could ignore the shelling, the dirt, the burning fatigue.

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