John Wilson's high-flying salute to paratroopers

John Wilson's high-flying salute to paratroopers

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Seventy years ago, more than 13,000 paratroopers landed on Normandy on what would be one of the largest amphibious military assaults in history.

All week long, I've been sharing stories of veterans who survived that massacre.


It's a day in history that's close to my own heart. My uncle fell under machine gun fire from a French woman on Omaha Beach during the war. He survived, but didn't talk about it much until 20 years ago, when I got a chance to travel to Normandy with a group of WWII vets.

They had an opportunity to relive their paratrooping experience on the 50th anniversary of D-Day.

So, I'm not 75 years old just yet, but I, too, was curious to experience what these men went through on that day. After all, if President George Bush, Sr. could do it, so can I!

My family thought I was a little crazy, but it turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life.


*****




First, I had to sort of sign my life away. Then, I asked all the important questions, like, "Is it gonna mess my hair up?"

"Probably!" responded my instructor.

After watching a video, getting a few safety lessons, and putting on my big yellow jumpsuit (at least it's not an orange one), I was ready to go.

"At 5,500 ft. we're gonna pull the parachute," said my instructor, "You wanna pull?"

"Yeah, OK!" I responded with enthusiasm.

The instructor gave me one last lesson, "Take those arms out, 90 degrees at the elbow, 90 degrees at the shoulder, big smile, head up, keep that arch. Let's go skydive!



"
I can't imagine actually doing this at night, on D-Day, under gunfire. You know, that's a different breed of person. People who do this for a living are extraordinary people."




A few waves, a thumbs up, and big smiles for the camera as we approached the plane.

"I cannot imagine what this is gonna be like at 120 miles per hour," I thought to myself.

On the plane, the cameraman asked me "What are the three things you're supposed to remember?"

With great zeal, I responded, "I'm gonna arch, I'm gonna relax, and I'm gonna have fun!"

Before you know it, I was jumping out of the plane. It was a tandem jump, so I had faith that I was in good hands. However, for a split second, the thought did occur to me, "What if they forget about the parachute?"

*****



John Wilson reports from Normandy/1994
John Wilson reports from Normandy, in front of a German "pillbox." They were fortresses with concrete six to eight feet deep, all the way around.


It seems silly to think anything would go wrong, but during my trip back to Normandy 20 years ago, a man from Inverness named Earl Draper had his parachute get tangled up during his jump. He then landed with his backup parachute, but suffered a back injury.

As you can imagine, that experience was in the back of my mind. Fortunately, my experience was smooth sailing, from the jump to the landing.

"I'm pretty steady for a guy who just went a 120 miles per hour," I told the crew after I took my goggles off.

That being said, I can't imagine actually doing this at night, on D-Day, under gunfire. You know, that's a different breed of person. People who do this for a living are extraordinary people.

This experience is one of those moments that's gonna be around for a long time in my life.

*****

We were honored to talk to survivors of D-Day from here in the Tampa Bay area, and to share their stories this week:


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