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article imageA jump in the dark: A U.S. paratrooper recalls D-Day

By AFP     May 22, 2014 in World

As the paratroopers' plane descended low over the Normandy coast, the commanding officer gave the order: "Stand Up and Hook Up!"

Doubled over, clutching his reserve parachute, Donald Burgett stood in the open door and then jumped, part of the first wave of the D-Day invasion 70 years ago.

"They train you so thoroughly, you just do it," said Burgett, a veteran of the US Army's 101st Airborne Division returning to Normandy for the 70th anniversary ceremonies.

Falling, he counted off three seconds for the main chute to open, ready to pull the cord on the reserve parachute if it didn't.

He checked to make sure the chute panels unfurled properly, and much sooner than he expected, he hit the ground -- hard.

"I couldn't have been one heck of a distance up when I dropped," he said.

- Fierce firefights -

The plan was to jump at 600 feet, he said, "but it was more like 200 or 300."

World War II paratrooper Donald R. Burgett  89  salutes the US flag as he poses for a portrait at hi...
World War II paratrooper Donald R. Burgett, 89, salutes the US flag as he poses for a portrait at his home on April 29, 2014 in Howell, Michigan
Joshua Lott, AFP

He heard the boom of German artillery and saw tracer bullets lighting up the night sky. As he struggled to undo his parachute harness, Burgett saw another plane come in too low.

"The men were coming out of the plane and the chutes weren't opening," he said.

"I could hear them hitting the ground. It sounded like a large pumpkin bursting on the ground. And that was probably 16, 17 paratroopers hitting without open chutes."

There were fierce firefights somewhere in the distance, but it was hard to tell how close.

Alone, Burgett made his way through the hedgerows, hoping to link up with fellow members of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

Then he heard a noise and glimpsed someone approaching. "I saw a figure moving in the dusky light. I took a bead on him and eased the safety off my gun."

He gave the challenge word, "Flash," and waited for the password "Thunder" in reply, but there was silence. He gave the challenge word again, and was poised to shoot when he recognized the figure as a fellow paratrooper.

World War II paratrooper Donald R. Burgett  89  poses for a portrait at his home on April 29  2014 i...
World War II paratrooper Donald R. Burgett, 89, poses for a portrait at his home on April 29, 2014 in Howell, Michigan
Joshua Lott, AFP

"I says, you dumb son of a so-and-so, why didn't you answer me? He said 'Don, my voice was so raw I couldn't say anything...I was hoping you wouldn't shoot me.'"

His unit was charged with securing the causeways behind Utah Beach, to clear the way for the troops landing in a few hours.

But elaborate plans for the paratroopers to assemble fell apart, as soldiers ended up scattered and separated from their comrades.

After wandering in confusion, Burgett eventually found his commanding officer and more men from his unit, as well as soldiers from the 82nd Airborne. As daylight broke, they made their way to a village, which they later learned was Ravenoville.

Acting as a scout for the small group of troops, Burgett encountered young French women smiling, offering him wine.

"I said no. I wanted to keep all my shooting abilities," he said.

The girls fetched an elderly woman, the local English teacher, and she explained where they were on the map.

His commanding officer cursed, realizing they had landed 12 miles from their intended drop zone.

"It turned out some of the German troopers had taken over a farm house there," Burgett said. "It was their command post for the area."

- Too young to buy a beer -

American assault troops in a landing craft huddle behind the shield 06 June 1944 approaching Utah Be...
American assault troops in a landing craft huddle behind the shield 06 June 1944 approaching Utah Beach while Allied forces are storming the Normandy beaches on D-Day
, AFP

His commander ordered an attack, leading his troops around to the back of the farm house.

A German machine gun mowed down five paratroopers as they approached. Burgett and another soldier threw grenades inside, flushing out the Germans.

The paratroopers quickly took control, and fended off several counterattacks during the day.

Burgett slept there that night, in the open, eating his first meal since the parachute drop. The K-rations of pork and egg yolks tasted like a "banquet."

Now 89, Burgett has a folksy sense of humor and is accustomed to recounting his story. He was one of the first enlisted men to publish a book about his time in the war.

"Currahee! A Screaming Eagle in Normandy" sold well after it was released in 1967, and won an endorsement from the supreme allied commander himself, Dwight Eisenhower.

The avuncular Burgett, who now needs a walker to get around, said he will travel to France to revisit old battlefields and remember the young men who did not make it.

US soldiers gather around trucks disembarking from landing crafts shortly after D-Day 06 June 1944 a...
US soldiers gather around trucks disembarking from landing crafts shortly after D-Day 06 June 1944 after Allied forces stormed the Normandy beaches
, AFP

"This will probably be the last time I go," he said from his living room in Howell, Michigan, the small town where he raised his family after the war.

As a civilian, Burgett felt "restless" and worked various jobs, supporting his family with construction work.

He eventually found satisfaction recording his war experience, and published three more books about his time with the paratroopers.

After D-Day, Burgett was wounded and then returned to the 101st to parachute into Holland for the ill-fated "Operation Market Garden."

The paratroopers were called in to hold the line in the Battle of the Bulge and as the war drew to a close. Burgett was still with his unit when they captured Adolf Hitler's "Eagle's Nest" at Berchtesgaden.

When he returned to the United States, he was 20 years old.

"I was still too young to buy a beer."

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