News: Spartans return from Normandy
Story by Maj. Adam Hallmark
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska – Twenty-four paratroopers here with the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division returned June 12 after spending seven days in Normandy, France, in observance of the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord, more commonly referred to as “D-Day.”
The paratroopers operated in support of Task Force Normandy 70, the U.S. European Command element that provided U.S. military support to the French government for ceremonies throughout the region.
From June 5-7, the Spartans primarily provided U.S. representation for ceremonial formations in several French towns, to include Picauville and Montebourg as well as participation in the Sainte-Mère-Église family dinner the night of June 5. The family dinner, in particular, gave residents of Sainte-Mère-Église the opportunity to “adopt” paratroopers of their choosing and host them for a home-cooked meal in their private residences.
On June 6, the Spartans provided World War II veteran escort at the Normandy American Cemetery ceremony in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, which was attended by President Obama, French President Francois Hollande, Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The June 7 ceremony in Angoville-au-Plain was the responsibility of the Spartan Brigade to coordinate and execute, which commemorated the actions of two medics – Robert Wright Sr. and Kenneth Moore – from the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. During action from June 6-8, 1944, Wright Sr. and Moore established a casualty collection point and aid station in the village church, rendering aid to 80 American and German soldiers as well as a local boy, losing only three soldiers in the process.
The ceremony in Angoville-au-Plain, a village of 50 residents, drew a crowd of approximately 500.
The culminating event for everyone involved, however, was the June 8 multinational parachute jump onto the Iron Mike Drop Zone. Only two-and-one-half miles outside of Sainte-Mère-Église, the drop zone is located where the community of La Fiere and the Merderet River meet and was the scene of heavy fighting on D-Day.
Approximately 600 paratroopers from the U.S., France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and Holland, amongst others, participated in the jump, which involved a total of 14 aircraft – 13 C-130s and one twin-engine C-160 from the German Luftwaffe. The presence of the German C-160 provided seven Spartans the opportunity to earn their German jump wings, which were presented during a wing exchange ceremony the evening of June 8.
For several Spartans, the trip to Normandy was an opportunity to connect with their family past or that of their unit in a special way.
Connecting with their unit, Lt. Col. Clint Baker, the current commanding officer of 1st Squadron (Airborne), 40th Cavalry Regiment, said the trip over gave him the opportunity to finally walk the ground of the 501st Infantry Regiment, which he was previously the commander of its 1st Battalion.
“I’m a member of the 501st [Infantry Regiment] Association and I’ve been going to its reunions for years, meeting all the World War II vets and listening to their stories, as well as having read all the books about the Regiment’s World War II service,” said Baker. “To finally be able to come over here and see all of these places in person really is an eye-opener – you gain an appreciation for what the terrain is like and what they had to deal with in terms of just simply getting from Point A to Point B.”
For Command Sgt. Maj. Cameron Dinger, the senior enlisted adviser of the 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, traveling to Normandy served a two-fold purpose.
During D-Day, 2-377 PFAR operated as the 377th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion under the 101st Airborne Division. When it dropped in during the pre-dawn hours of June 6, 1944, it lost 11 of its 12 75-millimeter pack howitzers and spent the first 13 days of combat operating as an infantry battalion until it received replacement guns.
“It’s the first time anyone from the 377th has come over here since D-Day,” said Dinger. Additionally, the June 8 parachute jump was Dinger’s 100th career jump.
“The jump was awesome,” said Dinger. “When we got airborne, we flew out over the [English] channel and as we crossed the coast headed inland, all I could think about was what it must have been like for those guys during the real thing.”
For one couple, June 6 provided the opportunity to make their wedding anniversary even more special.
Sgt. 1st Class Garret Brunton of Headquarters, 4/25 IBCT (ABN) and his wife, Sgt. 1st Class Sesireehana Brunton of the 725th Brigade Support Battalion (Airborne), 4/25 IBCT (ABN), were originally married on June 6, 2011, and took time out from their schedule to renew their wedding vows in front of the Sainte-Mère-Église chapel.
“D-Day and Sainte-Mère-Église are pretty important things to paratroopers,” said Sgt. 1st Class Garret Brunton. “We originally got married on June 6 because of its connection to D-Day and to be able to renew our vows at the Sainte-Mère [-Église] chapel is pretty special.”
For others still, being in Normandy provided an opportunity to connect with loved ones.
Sgt. Jordan Rabaste with the 1st Squadron (Airborne), 40th Cavalry Regiment viewed the opportunity to travel to Normandy as a way to retrace the footsteps of his grandfather. Rabaste’s maternal grandfather, Pfc. Robert Grant, served with Company M, 109th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division and waded ashore at Omaha Beach on D+3.
“My grandfather served as a machine gunner and was involved in the fighting to capture Paris, his unit being one of the first to parade through the Arc de Triumph,” said Rabaste. “He went on to win a Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart for his part in saving the life of a fellow soldier during the Battle of the Bulge.”
But Rabaste’s trip to Normandy isn’t his first. As Rabaste explains it, his paternal side of the family is French and his connection to Normandy extends beyond his maternal grandfather.
“My paternal grandfather was a French air force officer during the war and my father and uncle were both born in France after the war,” said Rabaste. Rabaste’s uncle later adopted him and the two traveled to Normandy many years ago.
“My [adoptive] father ... took me to Omaha Beach when I was roughly 13 years old, [but] I did not fully understand nor appreciate the soldiers, to include my grandfather, who made the sacrifice for the freedom of others,” said Rabaste.
Having now been to Normandy, Rabaste said that he now has a deeper understanding and appreciation for what not only American soldiers experienced in Normandy, but what the French people had to endure as well during the Nazi occupation.
As the sun sets on what Tom Brokaw called the “Greatest Generation,” this year’s 70th anniversary celebration may very well be the last concerted showing of D-Day veterans and coming together of the warring powers who were present in Normandy in 1944. In another 70 years, those Spartans who were given the rare opportunity to participate in such an event will no doubt look back on the last week with fondness and share their story with future generations that are willing to listen.