June 5 – One day to D Day
Today we traveled from Caen, to Sainte-Mere-Eglise, home to the museum for the United States Airborne troops from WW2.
The town was abuzz with dozens and dozens of U.S. Military jeeps and tanks. Every one of them driving the streets, yes, driving. These are all WW2 hardware, which was never returned to the U.S, and have been restored to pristine, war era condition.To add to the realism, dozens and dozens of men were dressed in U.S. military uniform, the same worn during the D Day invasion.
Honestly, it was difficult to not believe these men/actors, weren’t the real thing.
When an Army Jeep roared by with five G.I’s stuffed inside, and a 30-caliber gun center mounted, it looked, sounded, and felt as real as you can imagine. The only thing missing, were the stories of absolute heroism attached to those actors in the vehicles, and that’s where our veterans from North Texas come in.
Today I had the privilege of climbing into a wonderfully preserved C47 troop carrier airplane, with Lt. Col. Joseph Turecky, U.S. Air Force retired.
As we climbed inside through the door on the rear left side of the fuselage, he paused to take a deep breath, and then began to walk the steep incline to the cockpit he commanded during D Day operations and beyond. For 20 minutes I sat in the cockpit of the C47 with one of the amazing men who flew it. Not amazing by his standards he would argue, but without question by mine.
This man flew dozens of missions, right over Omaha beach and points all around France. Turecky delivered a critical element of the invasion, paratroopers. He talked about the sight of flying over Omaha beach on morning after D Day. A humbling birds eye view of a killing field. U.S. military hardware, battered and beaten and piled up mile after bloody mile along the shoreline of Omaha. But Turecky says he pressed on, put any emotion he might have felt in the back of his mind. He talks in great detail about the mission of delivering his men to their target night after night. 17 paratroopers at a time, that was a full load for the C47. Turecky said his mission was typically to fly over enemy territory at 1500 feet above ground level, hit the target, give the signal, and 17 of our youngest and bravest men would jump out the door, in the middle of total darkness, to glide to a landing, completely exposed, man their weapons and begin the fight.
For the Lt. Col, their exit, was an immediate turn for home base, to go get the next group.
The “flak” as he called it, enemy fire aimed for, and exploding all around his airplane, would often rock his plane side to side. An explosion just below the fuselage would pop his plane up a few feet in an instant. Think turbulence in our commercial flying world, only this kind of turbulence can pierce the skin of your airplane, and either kill you, or bring your plane down.
Turecky said that on a few occasions, he thought he might go down after his plane was rocked by enemy fire. Each time, he gave the order to his crew chief and load master to prepare to have the paratroopers bail out. They had parachutes, and an excellent chance of staying alive.
When I asked what would happen to him, he simply said he’d die, and that he was prepared for that. It was said so matter of fact, and I think that’s what caught me off guard. I know that if I was in a position of knowing I had a chance to die, I would fight like hell to the bitter end, to at least try to survive.
Turecky had no dreams of staying alive if something drastic happened to his plane at 1500 feet above the ground. He said he’d never have time after getting his boys out of the plane, to try and put the plane on autopilot, and make his way to the back door, and get out. Just not enough time. So he put them first, above his own life, from day one. He was prepared to give his life, and that’s just the way it was. He said he never took time to think about dying, or what “might” happen, while he flew. That Turecky said, was a one-way ticket to death.
One of those thousands of U.S. paratroopers he may have carried was Staff Sgt. Robert Bearden, also traveling with us for our return to D. Day.
We stopped in the exact field where Mr. Bearden dropped in, on a dark night in 1944. He talks extensively about his walk along the river, the one just a few yards below the area we are sitting, to a bridge no more than a hundred yards to our left. Keeping that bridge in tact, and pushing the Germans back was the objective.
As we looked out into that now green field, and pockets of forest that just seem to go on forever, Bearden thought of the many men who never made it out of those fields. The souls that were lost still weigh heavy on his mind, and he said as much. This is a man who not only fought for this country, but also spent 7 months in German POW camps. Being a prisoner of war in any war, can’t be easy by any stretch, but the stories of POW’s from WW2 are exceptionally difficult to comprehend. When he entered this theater of war, he was nearly 160 pounds. When the Russians finally liberated he and fellow POW’s in his prison camp, he was down to 98 pounds. But when I asked him what the most difficult part of being a POW was, I was stunned at his answer.
“Surrender” he said. “I didn’t come here to surrender, I came here to set Europe free”.
There I sat, in a field in France, with just one of the thousands upon thousands of men who laid it all out for each of us 69 years ago, completely humbled. The first hand accounts of these men are nothing short of amazing. They each have a story, the biggest question is, do you have the time to listen, before they are all gone? That’s why we are here.
The Daughters of World War II, treated 8 North Texas D Day veterans to this once in a lifetime trip. The Dallas-based non-profit organization operates solely from donations. If you’d like to donate, click here to visit their website.
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