The anniversary of an anniversary: A ghostly day on the beach

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Brigette Waltermire
  • 137th Air Refueling Wing
Early in the morning on June 6, 1944, an unfathomable scene of battle and death commenced on the beaches of Normandy, France.  Operation Neptune was the codename for the invasion of Normandy's beaches.  Almost 156,000 men stormed five different beaches, and thousands of men died on those shores and in the water.  A few hours before these beach landings, thousands of paratroopers landed behind the lines to assist in the takeover as a part of Operation Overlord.  They were dropped to secure flanks and vital bridges, according to an interactive map on BBC's website.

Fast forward 70 years to 2014, and tens of thousands of people were gathered in a field in France watching almost 900 jumpers recreate those airdrops.  Among the crowd were veterans, descendants, and other spectators commemorating this historic moment.  Veterans of both the Allied and Axis powers sat together in the crowd, former enemies united in remembrance of the losses on both sides. 

Another veteran, Jim "Pee Wee" Martin, was an original paratrooper at Normandy who jumped on the anniversary at 93-years old, according to CNN online.  Family members filled in where their ancestors could not, such as Allison Porcella.  The granddaughter of a paratrooper, she is the first American female jumper at the reenactments, according to an article on War History Online.

Also at the reenactment was Tech. Sgt. Fred Moreton, a chief joint terminal attack control instructor with the 146th Air Support Operations Squadron at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base in Oklahoma City.  He attended the anniversary event with the 116th ASOS out of Tacoma, Washington.  There, he jumped with a Dutch unit, off a Dutch C130, using Dutch parachutes.  This was special to him, as it allowed him to earn a set of Dutch jump wings - his second foreign pair, he said, with the other being Irish. 

"It was very humbling," he said of the spectators and the part he played in the reenactment. 

Although he was not a major player in the jump, he believes he met the man who made national headlines with his 70-year jump anniversary.

"I'm pretty sure I met the guy the day prior," he said of Pee Wee Martin. 

When they were speaking together, the alleged Martin said he was an airborne soldier with the 1st of the 508th.  Moreton was deployed with that unit in 2007. 

Moreton said he was the "orneriest old man I met in my life."  Apparently, a good, firm handshake was a must with Pee Wee.  Besides telling other men that their customary grasp was inadequate and consequently punching them in the gut, Pee Wee also described the drop zone was difficult to deal with because of the mud in the canals that were flooded back in 1944.

Moreton had a similar experience after landing in the drop zone.

"I was coming back to turn my chute in, and there were some little canals," he said.  "One looked like it had 5 or 6 inches of water in it. I was like, 'Eh... I can go across that no problem.'  Stepped in it and was up to my chest in mud."

After spending almost another 12 hours in his dirty, dried uniform, he and the other crew were released.  While in France, he stayed at a horse ranch.  There, he also went to visit the sights around Normandy.  His visits included exploring Mont-Saint-Michel, a castle on an island; seeing an unexploded (and now deactivated) artillery shell in the wall of a cathedral in St. Lo; and a monument dedicated to Bill Millin.
Commonly known as Piper Bill Millin, this man was attached to the 1st Special Service Brigade led by Simon "Lord Lovat" Fraser as his personal piper on Sword Beach.  Dressed in a kilt his father wore in World War 1 and a ceremonial dagger, he played songs that were, according to an article in the Washington Post, effective in "energizing the advancing troops and comforting the men whose last moments were spent on foreign soil."  He played throughout the battle, and made it through without a scratch - which was surprising since one would assume the noise and spectacle that his bagpipes created would have made him an easy target.  Captured German snipers said after the battle that the reason no one aimed for Millin was because they all thought he was crazy and had a death wish.

While the history of Piper Bill is most likely available on a plaque at the memorial, the converging tales of the battles at Normandy are not so easily encompassed.  Many of the reenactment participants brushed up on their D-Day history in some way, Moreland said.  Some watched documentaries or saw a show on the history channel, while others watched Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan.   Moreton read a book that helped him grasp the importance of the battle.

"That made it a lot more interesting... to see what people were going through and walk the same footsteps they did," he said.