I was seven years of age in 1944 when the Miracle of D-Day unfolded. I didn't understand then what was happening, but I knew it was something big. Our little community of Battleboro was affected like every other village, city and rural crossroads by the war. But when the Germans surrendered, I found my Mother crying tears of relief and prayerful gratitude in our living room. I will never forget that. So it gives me chills each time the D-Day Observance comes. Ike was the Commander, but the Lord was the Master, and without His sustaining grace and guidance, we might be speaking German today. We are so blessed. I have several of Ernie Pyle's books. This dispatch from his wartime correspondence is especially appropriate today.
North Carolina's Training Camps
I want to tell you what the opening of the second front entailed, so that you can know and appreciate and forever be humbly grateful to those both dead and alive who did it for you.
According to all indications, we are approaching one of the most momentous events in all history. Invasion Day, or D-Day, as it is referred to, will be more than a dramatic incident; it will be the all-out effort of the armed forces representing the cause of democracy, decency, freedom, and righteousness in the world. Furthermore, in this effort will be involved the lives of thousands of young men from our own state who are a part of the great armed force now poised for action . . . Nearly 300,000 of our North Carolina sons are in the armed services, a large part of whom are in combat areas. In this approaching hour of grave danger, they should be sustained by the earnest prayers of all our people.Sergeant Elmo Jones of North Carolina was one of the very first Allied soldiers to land on French soil on D-Day. Jones, a member of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment [PIR], 82D Airborne Division, was assigned to lead a Pathfinder team into Normandy in preparation for a massive air assault by more than 20,000 paratroopers who would land before dawn on D-Day. Heavily laden with equipment, Sergeant Jones jumped from his C-47 aircraft at an altitude of 300 feet, his parachute blossomed over his head in the night sky and, almost at once, he was on the ground in enemy territory. . . . Sergeant Jones’ seven-man team waited for the main body of the 505th PIR to arrive overhead. Their team was one of the few in the correct location.
By daylight on D-Day, some 13,400 U.S. paratroopers of the 82D and 101st Airborne Divisions, both trained at Fort Bragg, were fighting German troops over a wide area of Normandy’s Cotentin Peninsula.
For the Americans, the airborne drops had been anything but a success. Heavy German antiaircraft fire and clouds disoriented the aircraft crews; paratroopers were scattered everywhere, often far from their objectives. Only a few units, like the 505th PIR, got down on the correct drop zone in fair order. Providentially, the 505th PIR captured its key objective, Ste. Mere Eglise, the first French town to be liberated from the Germans, by dawn. .
Although the airborne assault was not a “textbook” drop, the troopers of the 82D and 101st still accomplished their mission of disrupting and confusing the Germans, preventing counterattacks against “Utah Beach” where the American 4th Division began landing at first light. Reinforced by glider-borne infantry and artillery, the two divisions fought in Normandy for over a month, sustaining a casualty rate of nearly fifty
At first surrounded by German infantry, tanks, and artillery, the Airborne units, joined by seaborne forces, pushed the enemy back, seizing bridges, crossroads, and other key objectives as they helped enlarge the allied lodgement in Europe. In Normandy, the 82D and 101st proved the worth of parachute and glider forces beyond all doubt. Moreover, these North Carolina trained troopers had led the strategic assault which would end the Nazi occupation of Europe.
Born and raised in Dunn, Bill Lee graduated from North Carolina State College and saw service with the 81st Division in World War I. After the war, Lee decided to make the army a career. He served in the Tank Corps and worked with French and British tank units during 1933–35. It was while he was in Europe in the mid-1930s that he became aware that the Germans were training parachute and glider units.
The idea of airborne [troops] became a passion for Lee.
It was none other than President Roosevelt who stirred up interest in the airborne in 1940. Alarmed by newsreels showing the German airborne units in action in Europe, FDR asked the Army to study the idea which led to Major Bill Lee’s assignment to the project on June 25, 1940.
Through his efforts the Army staged successful experiments with a parachute test platoon at Fort Benning in the summer of 1940, set up the first tactical parachute battalion, the 501st, and activated, early in 1941, the Provisional Parachute Group—with Lieutenant Colonel Bill Lee at its head.
In March 1942, the Army created Airborne Command at Fort Bragg with Lee as commanding general. Based on his recommendations, the army decided to create Airborne divisions, units of over 10,000 soldiers, complete with artillery, engineers, and support elements. Fort Bragg would be the training center. . . . Lee was promoted to Major General in August 1942 and given command of the 101st Airborne Division. The 82D and the 101st Airborne Divisions moved to Fort Bragg in the fall of 1942 to begin training for overseas deployment.
Airborne Command transformed the skies over Fort Bragg and the North Carolina Sandhills region in the period 1942–45, with parachutes, troop transports, and gliders a common sight. To augment Fort Bragg, the Army developed Camp Mackall at Hoffman, North Carolina, to be a key airborne training center. Construction began in the spring of 1942 and by early 1943 an airfield was complete, along with 1,750 buildings. . . .
Named for the first U.S. paratrooper to die in combat, . . . Camp Mackall was soon joined by another key airborne establishment, Laurinburg-Maxton Army Air Base. Home of the First Troop Carrier Command, Laurinburg-Maxton was activated August 28, 1942.
The new base, another extraordinary construction effort, was assigned the mission of providing intensive training for troop carrier and glider groups and for coordinating the training with “airborne units of infantry, artillery, paratroopers, engineers, and medical components of the Army.” Thus the vision of General Bill Lee had created a vast training establishment for the Army’s new Airborne arm, complete with large airfields at Pope, Mackall, and Laurinburg-Maxton. . . .
Before the war’s end, Airborne Command would train five airborne divisions and a host of independent units, including the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the army’s first black parachute unit.
Airborne training was only one aspect of the sprawling Fort Bragg complex, whose population exceeded one hundred thousand personnel by mid-1943. New inductees were received by the thousands throughout the war years and tens of thousands of artillerymen were trained on the post’s extensive ranges. In addition to the five airborne divisions, the 9th and 100th Infantry Divisions trained at Fort Bragg, as did the famous 2nd Armor Division.
VS: God bless America!