The following article that I wrote appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on June 5, 1994, in honor of the 50th anniversary of D-Day:
Villagers cried out “Liberate! Liberate!” when the smelly, unshaven U.S. paratrooper limped into town alone.
Private Joe Clancy, a member of the 82nd Airborne’s 307th Engineers, warned them that their celebration would be premature.
He had only a vague idea where he was, and his reinforcements consisted of a radio man and a sergeant hiding in a nearby hedgerow.
“I told them it’s only the three of us, but they thought we had the whole Army behind us,” Clancy recalled.
At about that same time, a week after the Allied invasion of Normandy, Sgt. Larry James strung communications wiring in a town once occupied by the Germans.
As he kneeled to tie off a wire, someone tapped James on the right shoulder. He glanced back. He saw boots. A long overcoat. German.
“I pulled a John Wayne,” James said. “I had a submachine gun at my side. I grabbed it, spun around and pulled the trigger, but it didn’t fire. It was jammed.”
Turns out, it was an older man, sputtering something in German. More than a dozen German soldiers approached James, hands raised. He was stunned.
“They were surrendering to me,” he said.
Fifty years later, on Memorial Day, both Clancy and James were among about 200 D-Day veterans honored at the White House, where they had breakfast with President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In Normandy, Clancy and James were strangers to each other, small cogs in the invasion that marked the beginning of the end of World War II.
Now they are friends, living a few miles from each other in Port Richey.
Just before midnight, June 5, 1944, Allied bombers shellacked the Normandy coast.
A Douglas C-47 dropped low while the German forces were distracted by the aerial bombardment. Other planes, filled with paratroopers, followed.
James and 200 other Pathfinders dropped into the French wilderness, setting up electronic beacons to identify drop zones for paratroopers who would arrive later.
The 22-year-old New York native joined the Army after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.
“Somebody waved a flag or something,” James said.
He had wanted to become a Marine, but a doctor told him he lacked “shock teeth,” needed to absorb close bomb blasts.
When he asked to become a paratrooper, James said, the reception was sunnier: “My God, he’s warm yet! Take him!”
Before Normandy, James had jumped over North Africa and Sicily.
“I was scared to death (before the jumps),” he said. “I had my rosaries out all the time.”
Wrong side of the river
When word came that Operation Overlord finally would begin, Clancy was relieved.
“We were glad when it came, in a way, so we could get in and get it over with,” he said.
Soldiers had been waiting several days. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted a full moon, clear skies and a smooth sea for the beach assault.
On June 6, Eisenhower had the moon and skies, but the sea remained choppy. His choice: Strike anyway or wait at least another month – time enough for Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to further fortify the Atlantic Wall.
Two hours after James jumped from his plane, and 4 1/2 hours before the amphibious landing began, planes carried paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions. Their task: capture and hold bridges and roads that might allow German reinforcements to reach the beaches.
A red light near the C-47s open hatch indicated Clancy and his fellow paratroopers were above the drop zone. They lined up to jump. Clancy thought they were too high – usually, drops were made from 500 to 800 feet. This seemed much higher, he said.
Flak buffeted the plane. Tracers flashed through the darkness. The hatch light glowed green. One after another, they jumped. Camouflage chutes billowed upward.
Clancy dropped toward the Merderet River. He thought he might have to drop his pack and rifle, because the weight would drown him. However, a wind carried him south beyond the river.
He landed on a tin roof in a courtyard in German-occupied St. Sauveur Le Vicomte.
“The sound, you should have heard that clang,” Clancy said. “I thought everyone in France must have heard it.”
Nursing an injured leg, the 22-year-old New Yorker checked his surroundings. Three walls and an iron gate. He could hear German soldiers on the other side of one wall.
“If they found me, it would have been over,” Clancy said.
After removing his chute and assembling his rifle, Clancy heard someone scrambling up the back wall. It was the radio man from Clancy’s plane.
The only sensible way out, he decided, was over the back wall and into the woods. Clancy guessed the Germans would be more likely to search for Allied soldiers on roads, not in the forest.
The next day, Clancy found an estate where a French couple offered the paratroopers shelter.
“If the Germans caught one American in a French house, they would kill two French, so I didn’t want to go into their house,” he said.
The woman spoke no English. Clancy managed sloppy French at best, using a English-French dictionary.
“She looked at me like a little boy, which I was compared to her,” Clancy said.
He managed to ask for help. He and his comrade had become lost some miles from their intended target, Sainte-Mere-Eglise, due either to misplaced beacons or the hastiness of a pilot anxious to escape blasts of flak and anti-aircraft fire.
The elderly woman knew a French Underground member who worked at the post office. She sent for him.
When he arrived, he was with Sgt. Al Cappa, another man from Clancy’s unit. Cappa’s face had been battered by his own submachine gun during a rough landing.
The Underground member told them of Laport, a town about 15 miles away, where a man could take them across the Merderet River to rejoin the Allies.
`I can still feel it . . .’
They traveled only at night, by the light of a waning moon. Along the way, the men cut German telephone lines, doing their part to disrupt communications.
During the day, Americans bombed the countryside. At night, it was the British. The bombs destroyed an abandoned building where Clancy and the radio man had left their supplies and rifles.
Later, a bomb nearly killed Clancy.
“I can still feel it, the air moving away from that big shell,” Clancy said. “The other two thought I was dead. Everywhere we’re moving, they’re dropping bombs. I realized it was pattern bombing – one here, one there, like a checkerboard. So I figured if we sat still a while, they’d move ahead of us, and they did.”
Before the end of D-Day, the Americans had broken through the stubborn German defenses at Omaha Beach. Sainte-Mere-Eglise and other towns north of the Merderet had been liberated.
James, the Pathfinder, had now turned his attention to either finding and disarming German mines or planting new ones.
It was no secret that the early morning paratroop raid had been disastrous. It seemed few dropped where they were supposed to.
Later, James would learn that his was the only Pathfinder group to get its drop zone right.
One day, while Clancy and his comrades dodged Allied bombs and German troops, another Pathfinder accidentally triggered a “Bouncing Betty,” an anti-personnel grenade. Thirteen pieces of shrapnel cut through James’ legs. The injuries proved relatively minor, but earned him a Purple Heart.
He also earned a medic’s scolding after he used his knife to remove shrapnel while he showered.
Across the Merderet
Clancy slipped from the hedgerow to reconnoiter a town on their way to the Merderet River.
He was hungry.
He needed a shave.
He hadn’t bathed since before boarding the C-47 more than a week earlier.
When he reached the town, they treated him like a conquering hero, with cries in English of “Liberate! Liberate!” The region south of the Merderet remained in German hands.
He explained his situation. They let him shave and wash up. They fed him and gave him food to take back to Cappa and the radio man.
Soon, the Americans moved on to the riverside town of Laport, where an Underground member agreed to take them across the Merderet. He would do it at night.
But Clancy knew both the Allies and the Germans would be on alert at night. Either side might fire on a boat in the dark. It was common, however, for French boats to cross the river during the day. Clancy talked the Frenchman into a daylight crossing.
The three soldiers ducked low in the boat. After a brief, uneventful river cruise, they were reunited with Allied forces.
“They hardly said hello before they gave us a job to do,” Clancy said.
`What have you got here, Yank?’
Soon after the German soldiers surrendered to James and lined themselves against a wall, a group of British soldiers arrived.
“What have you got here, Yank?” asked a Brit.
James told them. The British searched the pockets of the Germans and found precious chocolate wrapped in white paper.
“They got really excited about that,” James said. “Apparently, there wasn’t much chocolate in England in wartime.”
`You’ll always be a hero’
James and his wife, Margaret, became friends with Joe and Ellen Clancy after World War II, when both couples lived in New York City.
The two couples retired to Florida about a decade ago.
They rode together to Washington, D.C., for the Memorial Day breakfast.
Clancy said he was honored by the treatment D-Day veterans received at the White House and felt privileged to meet the Clintons. He felt no animosity toward Clinton, who has been criticized for draft-dodging and protesting the Vietnam War.
“The people who bring up those issues are wrong, because he’s doing a good job now,” Clancy said.
When the federal Veterans Affairs office called to invite James to the White House, he nearly refused.
This man, who fought from the North African desert to Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge to the fall of Berlin, did not think himself a hero.
“Heroes are the guys that died or got crippled,” he said.
Mrs. James disagreed: “You made it through all those battles. That’s quite an extensive record. If that’s not heroic, I don’t know what is. Anyway, you’ll always be a hero to me.”