CARENTAN, France (AP) — Parachutists are jumping over Normandy again, just as soldiers did 75 years ago for D-Day — but this time without being shot at.
Engines throbbing, C-47 transport planes dropped group after group of parachutists, a couple of hundred in all – including a 97-year-old D-Day veteran, Tom Rice.
It went perfect, perfect jump. I feel great. I’d go up and do it all again.“
– Tom Rice, 97-year-old D-Day veteran
The jumpers were honoring the airborne soldiers who descended into gunfire and death ahead of the June 6, 1944, seaborne invasion.
The landing zone for Wednesday’s operation was fields of wildflowers outside Carentan, one of the objectives of the thousands of paratroopers who entered occupied France from the sky dropped over Normandy in the D-Day prelude.
Rice, of San Diego, jumped into roughly the same area he landed in on D-Day. He said it was dark when he touched down in 1944 and he can’t be sure exactly where he was.
Rice jumped with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division on that momentous day 75 years ago, landing safely despite catching himself on the exit and a bullet striking his parachute. He called the 1944 jump “the worst jump I ever had.“
“I got my left armpit caught in the lower left hand corner of the door so I swung out, came back and hit the side of the aircraft, swung out again and came back, and I just tried to straighten my arm out and I got free,“ he told The Associated Press in an interview.
His jump on Wednesday was a different story. He came down in tandem with another parachutist, after preparing for six months with a physical trainer.
Rice flew down with an American flag fluttering beneath him and landed to a wave of applause from the crowd of thousands that gathered to watch the aerial display.
Other parachutists jumped with World War II souvenirs, some carrying items their grandfathers took into battle. Many spectators wore war-era uniforms, and music of the time played over loudspeakers.
Robert Schaefer, a retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army’s Green Berets who served in Afghanistan, carried whiskey, cigars and the dog tag and wallet his grandfather, George J. Ehmet, had with him when he fought as an artillery man in France.
“I feel like I got to jump with my grandpa,“ Schaefer said afterward.
British parachutists jumped later Wednesday en masse over Sannerville. D-Day veterans were expected to be among them. The jumps were part of events marking the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
Asked how his D-Day comrades would have felt about him jumping, Rice said, “They would love it.“
“Some of them couldn’t handle it. Many of them are deceased. We had 38% casualties,“ he said.
With the number of D-Day survivors dwindling fast, Rice said, “I represent a whole generation.“
Like many other veterans, he said he remains troubled by the war.
“All the GIs suffer from same blame and shame,“ Rice said. “It bothers us all the time for what we did. We did a lot of destruction, damage. And we chased the Germans out, and coming back here is a matter of closure. You can close the issue now,“ he said.