Story by Sgt. 1st Class Andy Yoshimura, USACAPOC(A) Public Affairs Office
Photos by Spc. Joshua Powell, 982nd Combat Camera Company
NORMANDY, France -- “On June 6th 1944, when we came here to Omaha Beach, I was scared. And anybody who has told you that they weren’t scared they were not telling the truth.”
Pfc. Clifford “Pickle” Dill was only 19 when he walked off a Higgins Landing Craft and waded 200-plus yards in waist-deep water just to reach the Normandy shore. Seven decades later, an enthusiastic Dill returned to Omaha Beach to remember those who marched next to him on that day while speaking to Army Reserve Soldiers from the U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) and the 824th Quartermaster Company on his experience.
Dill does not like to talk too much about what happened that day, but his spirit brought him back this year to be around Soldiers young and old.
“I came here to kill or be killed when I ran across the beach and I came out on the lucky end. The good lord brought me though all of it,” explained Dill.
“This is hallowed ground and this is important,” said Capt. Justin Stafford of the 412th Civil Affairs Battalion as he scooped some sand into a bag. “I want to take a physical reminder home on the things that went on here.”
“It is amazing what these Soldiers did coming off of the landing crafts with the amount of fortitude and fear to run through enemy fire that they were receiving. It’s overwhelming,” added Stafford.
Stafford, along with 30 Army Reserve paratroopers, also played a part in one of the largest combined airborne operations in Europe.
Over 600 paratroopers and 14 planes filled the Normandy sky in front of more than 100,000 spectators sitting around Iron Mike Drop Zone located next to the La Fiere Bridge just outside the town of Ste. Mere Eglise.
In 1944, more than 13,000 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division made jumps early in the morning in the exact location under enemy fire.
Exactly 70 years later, paratroopers from eight different countries participated in a commemorative airborne operation. Rounds of applause instead of fire awaited the jumpers when they landed on the drop zone.
“It’s a humbling experience,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Manella of the 351st Civil Affairs Command. “We are lucky we did it without combat equipment in the middle of the day with light wind and they had to do it in the middle of the night in enemy territory.”
“I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to prepare for that,” added Manella.
Sgt. Crystal Hopping, a human resource specialist with USACAPOC(A), received a French parachutist badge but felt it was more of an honor just to jump onto hallowed grounds.
“I’m glad we were actually able to do this and to memorialize some of our Soldiers that have passed,” said Hopping.
Hopping took all of her airborne commands in French from the French jumpmaster jumping their parachute system. “I was excited and a little bit nervous but that is expected before each jump.”
As the paratroopers exited the drop zone, some shuffled towards the sea of spectators, giving high-five’s and their unit patches to the crowd; some dressed in the old fashion WWII military garb.
“With the mass amount of people that we have here for support it was a surreal experience,” said Capt. Lisa Rousseau, a civil affairs officer with the 450th Civil Affairs Battalion. “I saw people cheering us on, waving our flag, waving other countries’ flags. I wish this moment can last longer.”
Every year during the first week of June, Ste. Mere Eglise and the surrounding towns commemorates Operation Overlord and honors those who sacrificed their lives. As visitors walk around the towns such as Picauville, Caretan and Montebourg, or visit the Pegusus and La Fiere Bridge, dozens of memorial sites spread throughout the peninsula are decorated with brightly-colored flowers and streamers honoring those who have fallen and who served during WWII.
As the amount of years that have passed increases, the amount of WWII veterans attending the Normandy remembrance decreases every year. Their spirits will continue without our veterans as they left a historical mark in the sand and the fields of Normandy.
“It was truly breathtaking to be out there with our brothers and sisters reflecting on what our Soldiers and forefathers went through,” added Rousseau.