This is a place to reflect on history's greatest conflict. You'll see stories about soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and civilians, people I've been privileged to meet as a reporter for Louisiana's largest daily newspaper, The Advocate. You're welcome to share stories of your own by posting a comment or emailing the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lenton Sartain, part of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 319th Glider Field Artiller Battalion (Photo used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
By George Morris
In his first two years in the Army, C. Lenton Sartain Jr., of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, qualified as a paratrooper, served in North Africa, fought in Italy and trained endlessly with his unit.
But nothing was like D-Day.
When American, British and Canadian forces invaded German-held France on June 6, 1944, no one had it easy. But Sartain, then a lieutenant known to his men as Charlie, may have had one of the most dangerous ways of getting into Fortress Europe.
Sartain was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 319th Glider Field Artillery Battalion. While most of the soldiers arrived by boat or parachute, Sartain was among those who came on clumsy aircraft ill-suited for this occasion.
Regardless, those aboard them helped begin the eastward push that ended in Germany’s surrender 11 months later.
“The glider landing in Normandy was very crucial, but it was very costly,” said Sartain. “We lost a lot of people just by Normandy having such small fields. … It was a touch-and-go situation there for a while.”
P-51 pilot Osce R. Jones poses beside his aircraft. (Photo provided by Carol Ann Jones Lizana)
By George Morris
Many veterans returned from World War II with stories to tell, and most relied only on their memory.
P-51 fighter pilot Osce R. Jones, had something more tangible — a diary.
Forced down over occupied France by antiaircraft fire the day after the D-Day invasion, Jones, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, spent a week trying to evade capture and work his way back to England. He got caught, but while the events were fresh on his mind in a POW camp, he wrote about his experiences in a tiny notebook. His wife, Thelma, kept the notebook after he died in 1994.
“He had to write real small, because they didn’t have much paper,” she said.
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower speaks with paratroopers shortly before they board airplanes taking them into Normandy on D-Day. (National Archives)
By George Morris
Vincent Russo Sr. of New Roads, Louisiana, was already beyond fear. Russo was one of thousands of airsick paratroopers bouncing through the skies in C-47 transport planes in the earliest hours of D-Day.
“A deep breath of fresh air was the only thing on my mind,” Russo said.
Finally, a green light signaled it was time to jump, and men of the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions stepped into the night illuminated by searchlights, anti-aircraft bursts and machine gun tracer rounds. They had to secure the roads and bridges leading from the invasion beaches. It was about 2 a.m., and, along with British paratroopers to the east, they were the first Allied combat soldiers to touch French soil.
At that hour and in that weather, it was impossible for the paratroopers to know whether they were going to land in an open field, in a tree, on a building, or …
They all knew it was coming. It was the reason they were in Great Britain, training for the great invasion of Western Europe. On April 6, all leave had been cancelled for the invasion troops. It was getting closer. But when would it be?
Nobody knew. Even as the towns, woods and roads of southern England filled with more and more men and machines, many of the troops had no inkling of how close the invasion was.
“We were one unit in that town, and we were not allowed to go just any place we wanted to,” said Mike Simpson, a medic with the 4th Infantry Division. “So, we didn’t know the magnitude of what was going on.”